Just how many slackers work for the county?


July 07, 1996|By Norris West

HOW MUCH deadwood works for you?

Some presumably hard-working people in Howard County government acknowledge that not all their colleagues pull their weight. But they can't place a number on the slackers.

Darrel Drown says he can.

The Republican chairman of the County Council caused a furor last month when he accused county workers of being stricken with a "union mentality," a condition he says is characterized by inability to go beyond the call of duty.

For a man likely to run for county executive in two years, it wasn't a very statesman-like thing to say. In one fell swoop, he handed up a sweeping indictment of public employees and organized labor.

Employees already were wounded by a consultant's report that does conclude county workers were being underworked and overpaid. Mr. Drown poured salt into the open sores.

He later apologized, replacing the phrase "union mentality" with "old mentality." Not surprisingly, few if any employees were assuaged.

Despite the apology, the chairman is sticking to the meat of his argument: that too many people in county government don't work hard.

Now, he tells us how many.

Mr. Drown estimates that 20 to 25 percent of county employees are afflicted with union, er, old mentality.

He didn't need a consultant to provide that percentage. He says he speaks from his experience as a former county public school administrator. While working in the school system, he says, it became clear to him that 75 to 80 percent of employees did acceptable or excellent work. The rest didn't. The ratio applies to non-school workers as well, he says.

Mr. Drown probably is right when he says, "There are certain people who skate by and others who put in the effort."

I have depended on county employees in many departments over the years for information, usually with good results. I've covered the county and Baltimore City, and the county bureaucracy is much easier to navigate. But I don't know how many good and bad employees work in county government.

Some employees who have impressed me over the years as hard workers have issued a challenge to Mr. Drown: Spend time with us and see for yourself how diligently we serve the public, they say.

'He's clueless'

"He's clueless," one long-time employee complained of the council chairman. "He doesn't know what it takes to provide this level of services."

Unfortunately, spending a day won't do any good. Those who don't work hard might feel compelled to change their mentality for the seven or eight hours they are being observed by an elected official.

Mr. Drown's statement has sent spirits in county government into another tailspin. Morale has been low for years as employees have endured layoffs, furloughs and buyouts -- all moves that were necessary to help the county stay afloat during tough financial periods. Many of those who survived the cuts believe their bosses think of them as expendable. Some told the county worker newsletter, The Daily Grind, that they work hard but the county doesn't care.

And perhaps they're right. Although Mr. Drown may not enjoy being viewed with contempt by county workers, what he really cares about is the way he is viewed by voters.

Wooing voters, not workers

If he runs for county executive, he will seek to make himself more attractive to voters by defining himself as a frugal fiscal manager who rewards superior work and punishes laggards. According to his figures, this would give at least one-fifth of employees reason to worry.

His controversial remark came as he, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and other Republicans are looking for a way to overhaul the county's system of providing raises.

Currently, employees get "step" increases for staying on the job over certain periods of time. Employees also receive longevity increases after remaining in the work force for 12 and 16 years.

Republicans favor a merit system. It would reward workers with raises when evaluations show that they have performed admirably. They are encouraged by the aforementioned consultant's study, which advises the county to adopt such a system.

Neither system is flawless, however.

Under the step-increase system, lazy employees can continue to receive raises for merely occupying space during work hours. But under the pay-per-performance system, a supervisor who has a personality conflict with an employee can deny a raise by writing an unfair evaluation.

Mr. Drown's solution for resolving personality conflicts is unlikely to be greeted by public servants with enthusiasm: "If you have a personality conflict with your boss, you may have to change your personality," he says, "because he's the boss."

Perhaps Mr. Drown has absolutely no respect for employees. Or maybe he's just suffering from a case of "politician's mentality."

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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