Tense feelings surface in Carroll government

Commissioners' conflicts, `micromanagement' add to anxiety among staff

July 04, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Laurell Taylor, the attorney for Carroll County, had recently received a positive performance evaluation, so she had no thought that her job might be in danger when the county commissioners abruptly called her to a noon meeting in August.

Moments later, she got an ultimatum: Resign within the next four hours or be fired.

Taylor resigned, saying publicly that she wanted to "branch out into other areas of law." She is now Westminster's city clerk.

Taylor's sudden departure is one example of the daily tension in Carroll County's government offices - which one former employee calls "a culture of absolute fear and repression."

In more than 30 interviews, local officials, community leaders and employees described a county government rife with infighting and micromanagement. Amid that turmoil, critics say, employees are afraid to offer dissenting opinions, to solve problems creatively or to carry out simple actions without a commissioner's direct approval.

Tension peaks when the commissioners disagree on high-profile issues, such as South Carroll's chronic water shortages. Many county workers believe that Taylor and former Public Works Director J. Michael Evans were forced out because they were less than enthusiastic about the commissioners' plan to construct a $15 million water treatment plant at Piney Run Lake near Sykesville.

The departures and rumors of unrest make the county look bad, some say.

"It's obviously a problem when we lose the people we've been dealing with for years," says Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "It's a bad sign when a business loses key employees. It's a sign that something odious is going on."

Dell sees no problem

But Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier say reports of turmoil and low morale are fueled by a small group intent on criticizing the commissioners in any way possible. The relationship between staff and the commissioners functions at a near-optimal level, Dell says.

"With three commissioners having different opinions, it can be tough on staff, but I always try and give them the benefit of the doubt," Dell says. "I try to understand that they're giving me their best shot based on their expertise, and I'm certainly willing to change my mind based on their advice."

As for the departures of key staff members, Dell says, "I can't let it bother me, or I couldn't do this job. Because we can't talk about personnel decisions, I can't even defend myself, so I just let it go."

During the past two years, the commissioners have lost or forced out four of 12 employees at the director level, the highest in county government: Taylor, Evans, Planning Director Steve Horn and Max Bair, executive assistant to the commissioners.

Only the resignations of Taylor and Evans can be linked directly to office tensions. Horn took a higher-paying job in Frederick County; Bair said he retired at age 53 because he could help the community more in other capacities.

The county's employee turnover rate, which hovers around 9 percent annually, has been relatively stable under the current board and is lower than that of many area counties.

But working for Carroll County can be difficult because the commissioners wield both executive and legislative power in a system unique among Baltimore-area localities. As a result, frustrated staff members have little recourse if they run into problems with the board.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, at times a strong critic of the county work environment, says staffers are cowed by her battles with Dell and Frazier. On major issues, 2-1 board votes are common, and such conflict "has taken a lot of the innovative spirit out of people," she says.

Previous boards showed greater respect for staff input, she says, and the threat of dismissal never seemed so palpable for employees. "The shame of it is that the employees now spend more time trying to figure out how to keep the three of us happy than they do trying to work on the county's problems."

`Micromanagement'

Critics of Dell and Frazier say they often feel the commissioners are looking over their shoulders. Several current and former employees spoke of the daily anxiety triggered by questions on minor issues such as the type of brick in a building or the speed limit around a curve.

"I think it's difficult to work for this board, mainly because of their micromanagement style," says a county employee, who, like many other staffers, requested anonymity because of fears of retribution. "It makes it very difficult to get anything done because we have to get approval for every little thing."

"It's like trying to drive a bus with three steering wheels. It's a very inefficient way of doing things," said former Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who served on the board with Dell from 1994 to 1998. During that time, Brown repeatedly labeled Dell a micromanager.

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