Court clerk's handling of staff is questioned

Rival in Balto. Co. race says Mensh is anti-union

September 03, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien and Brendan Kearney | Dennis O'Brien and Brendan Kearney,SUN STAFF

At 73, Suzanne Mensh has been clerk of the Circuit Court in Baltimore County since 1986, and she considers her experience a major selling point in her bid for a fifth term.

One of Mensh's challengers is focusing on how she handles her staff of 120 and on her firing of a court clerk in October.

Yvonne Clark, one of two fellow Democrats running against Mensh for the $75,000-a-year post, has criticized Mensh for the dismissal and says Mensh is hostile to unions.

"We need to look at her hiring and personnel practices and see how she's running that office," said Clark, 54, of Woodlawn, a benefits administrator for the city Circuit Court.

The other Democrat running for the office is Kevin Rex Mooring, 46, a veteran police officer from Woodlawn.

The winner of the Sept. 10 primary will run in November against William T. Hill, 55, a Republican and longtime court clerk from Towson.

The clerk performs marriages, swears in judges and oversees a staff that issues business licenses and record deeds, and keeps track of court-related paperwork, including the dozens of suits filed each day.

Clark, the more outspoken of the two Democratic challengers, says she plans to look closely at Mensh's personnel practices because of concerns she says she has heard from her labor union. She also says she would work harder to recruit minorities.

"I think the whole office, and its hiring practices, should be looked at," Clark said.

Arthur "Pat" Kelly, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3674, which has endorsed Clark, said that Mensh discourages workers from joining the union and that the eight union members who work for Mensh are afraid to complain about office policies.

"If you're in the union you're labeled as a troublemaker or a bad apple," Kelly said.

Mensh said she is not hostile to unions and is as fair as possible with her staff. About two years ago, she said, she selected employees from various departments to represent workers and began monthly meetings to allow grievances to be aired.

"There's a delicate balance between making sure your employees know that you care about them and letting them know they can't abuse the system," she said.

She said that she hired the first minority for the clerk's office shortly after she was first elected in 1986 and that she has 14 minorities on her staff.

Clark also criticized Mensh for firing in October a clerk who was picked for jury duty and went home without reporting for work on days when the trial, which lasted for three weeks, ended early.

The clerk, Kristen Piscopo, a six-year employee, acknowledged that she disobeyed orders to come to work. She told The Sun in October that she stayed away from work because she might have caused a mistrial if she overheard other clerks talking about the case.

Clark said she would not have fired Piscopo.

"I would have been more sympathetic and told her to put in a request for leave," she said.

Mensh said she checked with a judge and learned that the clerk would not have caused a mistrial by coming to work. She also said the clerk ignored clear orders to report to work on any day when the trial ended early.

"When I have to make a tough decision, one I think is right, I do it," Mensh said.

Before she was elected in 1986, Mensh served on the Orphans' Court for 24 years and was its chief judge for 19 of those years. She is a member of the state Judicial Ethics Committee and state committees that handle personnel issues and staff development in the courts.

She has the endorsement of the Fourth District Democratic Club, has raised $31,304 and has $16,170 in her campaign treasury, according to reports filed with the state board of elections.

Clark, in her first run for elective office, has spent her own money for 200 signs, 5,000 fliers and 2,000 palm cards. She said she also has a network of volunteers working for her.

"I have to work on getting more materials out there. We're going to be out there in force at the polls come Election Day," she said.

Mooring has raised $950, according to campaign reports, and hopes to raise about $8,000 for pamphlets, signs and radio advertisements.

Mooring points to his 25 years' experience as a police officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. He is assigned to the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

"As a police officer, I do know how to speak to people in a variety of situations and deal with people fairly," Mooring said. "I believe I can go in there and have a new approach."

Mooring ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in the 12th District in 1986 and volunteered in the campaigns of former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and other Baltimore elected officials.

From 1991 to 1993, he was president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 103, which has disbanded. He has the endorsement of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, FOP Lodge 34.

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