Firing of director has veterans board mired in acrimony Memorial Commission divided over handling of disputed dismissal

July 28, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In 1924, Baltimore and Maryland formed the War Memorial Commission, an obscure board of veterans charged only with managing their stately headquarters across the street from City Hall, where the usual action has been civic groups huddling for community meetings.

Today -- after 74 years of little conflict -- the board is at war with itself.

Friction came to a head last month when Baltimore police escorted the commission's fired executive director from the property. As a result of the abrupt dismissal, commissioners are arming themselves with personal attorneys and threatening to file suits over the matter.

"It's upsetting," said Commission Vice Chairman John A. Micklos, a board member for 20 years. "There is a personality conflict, and we have two strong personalities" in board Chairman W. Russell Brown and Executive Director Cynthia DeLeaver-Coates.

DeLeaver-Coates has challenged her firing, demanding her job back.

It was her hiring as the first non-veteran director in June 1997 that triggered the commission's troubles. In the $35,000 per year job, DeLeaver-Coates also served as secretary to the board and supervised the commission museum at 101 N. Gay St., which is often used by civic groups and by U.S. immigration officials during citizenship ceremonies.

Because DeLeaver-Coates was not a veteran, one of the 10 commission members -- five appointed by the governor and five by the mayor -- resigned in indignation.

The controversy climaxed on June 24 when Baltimore policeescorted an outraged DeLeaver-Coates out of the building, amid questions over who ordered her firing and whether they had the authority to do so.

Brown, who has served as chairman for the past two years, said he and other board members were unhappy with DeLeaver-Coates' "ill performance." He accused her of opposing new work schedule, taking 30 sick days off in her first year, and failing to complete board minutes on time.

Because DeLeaver-Coates serves at the pleasure of the board, Brown said, her dismissal was justified, made at the recommendation of an "advisory board" of commissioners he had appointed to decide the executive director's future.

"She was fired the same way she [was hired], by the vote of the commission," Brown said.

The city is holding DeLeaver-Coates' last paycheck and at least $1,200 of her money in the credit union until she signs papers acknowledging her termination, Brown said. Police were called last month when DeLeaver-Coates refused to leave the building after being dismissed, he said. "She was belligerent and hollering," Brown said.

Some commission members, however, tell a different tale. They say they hadn't voted on DeLeaver-Coates' dismissal and that the decision was approved by the commission's personnel committee. After she was dismissed and escorted from the building, the commission then voted 4-2 -- with two members abstaining and two absent -- to back the dismissal.

Micklos supported the dismissal, saying he followed Brown's recommendation. Meyer Sokolow, chairman of the personnel committee, also supported the action, but refused to comment on the dismissal, directing questions to Brown. Commissioners opposing the action -- including former Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert B. Watts -- said that DeLeaver-Coates was denied a proper chance to respond to the accusations of poor performance.

"I have yet to see any real good reason why we got rid of that woman," said Watts, who is now an attorney for Baltimore's Piper & Marbury. "I was concerned that we didn't give her a fair hearing and Mr. Brown was determined to fire her."

So determined, Watts said, that when the question about her performance arose in March, Brown changed commission committee assignments based on who supported DeLeaver-Coates. State-appointed commission members, including Brown, were given seats on more instrumental committees, such as personnel, while city commissioners were boxed out of the decision-making process, Watts said.

"The only ones he removed were the people who voted against him," Watts, a city appointee, said of Brown's committee assignments. "How obvious can you be?"

Brown denies the allegations. All commissioners agree that Brown went to bat to hire DeLeaver-Coates, despite her not being a veteran. He even contacted Gov. Parris N. Glendening on her behalf, he said.

Brown said he did not orchestrate the firing. "I don't want to hurt this woman," Brown said. "I fought too hard for this woman."

DeLeaver-Coates, 47, acknowledges being out the sick days, but blames it on the stress caused by the commission fight. She had the flu from Jan. 29 through Feb. 10. After the commission battle erupted over her performance in March, she was out sick from May 13 to June 1. She said neither Brown nor the personnel committee had the authority to fire her without the entire board's approval.

"Even if I was out 50 days, Mr. Brown did not have the authority," said DeLeaver-Coates, who said she is the widow of a an Army sergeant.

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