Merit system debate flares Balto. Co. employees, some elected officials oppose charter change

'Could politicize process'

Plan to remove jobs from civil service awaits place on ballot

July 26, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Members of the Baltimore County Council are increasingly wary about a proposed charter change that would let the county executive remove 50 to 60 high-level jobs -- including budget analysts -- from the merit system.

Two councilmen oppose it outright, while several others, including the chairman, aren't comfortable with an idea that opponents see as a power grab by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. A council work session is set for Tuesday.

"I still cannot see why, when we're trying to boost employee morale and productivity, we would do something that makes employees have so many questions and concerns," said Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville-Arbutus Democrat. "I truly think it needs more time."

The proposal has ignited a furor among county workers who fear that it could open the door to patronage abuse by a county executive. Under the proposed law, no current merit system employee could be forced out of the system.

Ruppersberger says he wants to reform the county's cumbersome, 42-year-old civil service system.

Two council members, Towson Republican Douglas B. Riley and Fullerton Democrat Joseph Bartenfelder, say they oppose such a charter change. "It could politicize the process" in future administrations, Bartenfelder said.

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. "There is a public perception problem that needs to be addressed," Perry Hall Democrat Vincent J. Gardina said.

Administration loyalist Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat, is riding the fence. "I see both sides," he said. "It is highly controversial. We won't know until we see the final product."

For the charter amendments to appear on the November ballot, the council must approve a bill Aug. 3. If the voters approve, the council would have to pass bills to remove most of those jobs from the merit system.

Responding to critics

To assuage critics, Ruppersberger has recently tinkered with the proposal, which originally would have allowed the removal of up to 700 jobs from the merit system. However, officials said, the initial target number was realistically set at about 75. The county has about 7,000 merit system employees, not including school system workers.

The latest version would take the county's 11 budget analysts out of the merit system. The proposal also would take out deputy police chiefs and assistant fire chiefs -- top jobs unfilled for years. Police majors would remain in the merit system.

It also would require five votes on the council to remove most of those jobs instead of the four-vote majority originally proposed.

A companion resolution would say that no merit system worker could be forced into a job outside the merit system and would set up procedures to safeguard against the hiring of political cronies for top jobs.

None of the councilmen had seen the latest changes by Friday, they said.

But the revisions haven't satisfied county labor groups, who are lobbying against the proposal and warning that the plan could mean a return to heavy-handed political patronage.

'Potential to control'

Ronald E. Harvey, chairman of the county's supervisory, managerial and confidential employees -- the top 10 percent of the county's bureaucracy -- said exempting the budget office makes a bad idea worse.

"The budget office controls every agency. Through control of organization and positions, the budget office has the potential to control an agency's mission," said Harvey, whose group represents the budget analysts.

The police and fire unions are dissatisfied with the proposal, and the Federation of County Employees, the county's white-collar union, also opposes it.

Michael H. Davis, spokesman for Ruppersberger, rejected those criticisms.

"I think the council has confidence in the voters, and I would hope they'd let the voters decide whether this is progressive, good government," he said.

Fred Homan, budget director, said his 11 budget analysts are "as much management policy people as department heads are."

Davis says the administration might make a few more changes before the final council vote.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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