Balto. Co. adding patronage jobs Shift from merit hires driven by economics

July 29, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

From auditors to housing inspectors, some key Baltimore County government jobs are being removed from the civil service "merit system" in the name of flexibility, speed and economy.

The idea is not new. Federal money for years has funded scores of jobs outside the merit system, and appointive, patronage jobs -- such as the county's only full-time liquor inspector -- occasionally are created.

But the impetus for the most recent changes is new -- to make government more like private business.

"There's a cultural change here," says County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart, observing that attitudes of government workers are becoming more like those in private industry. They no longer expect "lifetime jobs," she said.

The changes are particularly sensitive in Baltimore County, where a political spoils system spawned a series of corruption scandals in the early 1970s. A county executive and state's attorney went to prison, and a former county executive and Maryland governor -- Spiro T. Agnew -- resigned as vice president when pleading no contest to federal tax evasion.

Current government leaders from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III down say they are not weakening the civil service system, but strengthening government for leaner times.

But leaders from an earlier generation don't agree.

"It's absolutely scary," former County Councilman Eugene Gallagher says of the changes.

Gallagher, an independent Democrat who served from 1974 to 1986, fears that current leaders have forgotten the lessons of the past. The reduction in merit system hiring "will open up these people to tremendous pressure, especially with inspectors," he said.

Herbert Wirts, 67, who was the council's auditor for 18 years, doubts the wisdom of changing the office he headed until 1990.

Before the merit system was created by voters with home-rule government in 1956, Wirts said, the old political spoils system was in full flower.

"They used to take political contributions [from county workers] as a payroll deduction," he said.

The merit system formalized educational standards for auditors and helped create an independent watchdog in county government, Wirts said.

Tom Toporovich, the retired longtime County Council secretary, was appointed to his job nearly three decades ago and was never in the merit system. But he says the move toward more appointed workers in key jobs is "a step back" that is "destroying the system of checks and balances."

Ruppersberger and others in power sharply disagree.

"There needs to be a balance," the executive said. "The merit system started as a reaction to problems years ago. Now we have open government" and a more sophisticated system less open to political abuses, he said.

"The merit system rewards poor employees and not good ones," Ruppersberger said, noting that employees in appointive jobs must work a lot of extra hours without extra compensation.

Leaders of county unions don't like the new thinking.

"There's too much opportunity to play favoritism," said James L. Clark, president of the white-collar Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees. Others say the merit system could be changed, or changes negotiated with unions.

But those favoring the changes say that public workers -- besieged in recent years by budget cuts, layoffs and early retirement incentives -- can't really feel secure anymore even with merit system protections.

The potential for corruption is always there, and the merit system won't stop that, said former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

"I was close enough to the crooks and the good guys," Hutchinson said, laughing. He held the top county office from 1978 to 1986 after nine years as a state legislator. "The old political patronage system is gone," he said.

Now director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Hutchinson says the real test is the integrity of the county's employees, and the diligence of voters.

Overall, there's no evidence of a move to end Baltimore County's merit system, and the current crop of officials says that is not the intention.

Since 1990, the proportion of appointed workers on the local government payroll -- excluding the school and library systems -- has remained at 20 percent, while the number on the payroll has declined from 8,300 to 7,100, according to county personnel statistics.

The county's director of permits and development management, Arnold E. Jablon, says he will hire 14 county inspectors and two clerks outside the merit system by necessity -- for the flexibility pTC of having inspectors work evenings and weekends without the overtime pay required by the merit system or union contracts.

"I can't afford overtime," he said, adding that it's too complicated and cumbersome to try to change merit system rules to fit modern times.

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