Gardina becomes second to sue Ehrlich over job loss

Balto. County councilman says firing was political

October 15, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina sued Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to get his state job back, saying he was hired in anonymity thanks to competence but quickly fired because of crass partisan politics.

Gardina, a Democrat who has served as a council member since 1990, had worked for five months as a contract engineer with the quasi-public Maryland Environmental Service, concentrating on dredging projects.

His lawyer says Gardina obtained the $56,000-a-year position in April without the knowledge of the governor, but was abruptly terminated despite positive reviews when his employment became more widely known during the summer.

"Governor Ehrlich, himself and through his agents, servants and employees, was responsible for the plaintiff's termination," states the lawsuit, filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

In his bid for re-election last year, Gardina defeated former Del. James F. Ports Jr., once the House minority whip and an ally of Ehrlich's. Ports subsequently received a prominent position with the state Department of Transportation, earning $112,000 yearly.

Gardina becomes the second fired state worker to file a lawsuit that seeks to alter the way governors hand out patronage jobs. Daniel M. Clements, an attorney for Gardina and former Department of the Environment employee Robin D. Grove, argues that the state and federal constitutions and U.S. Supreme Court precedents prevent low-level and midlevel employees from being fired because of party affiliation.

In Gardina's case, Clements said, there is no other explanation for the dismissal.

"He was hired under the radar screen. This was a staff job. This was a guy who learned of a vacancy, and talks to two regular, ordinary employees at Maryland Environmental Services" who hired him, said Clements, adding that the position was the major source of Gardina's income.

But Gardina caused a stir when he attended the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference as a representative of the environmental agency, the lawyer said.

Ehrlich administration officials "did not know that he worked for them until August," Clements said. "He went to the MACO conference, and that's where they learned."

Ports said he did not attend the association conference and did not know of the councilman's employment until reading about the firing in The Sun. He says he never had a conversation with anyone about ousting Gardina.

"I keep professional and political completely separate," Ports said. "I don't have ill will against Vince for running against me and beating me. ... I do not and have not discussed personnel issues with anyone in the Ehrlich administration."

Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's legal counsel, said the administration as a matter of policy does not comment on "the individual facts of any personnel issue."

But speaking generally, Finney denied allegations that Maryland's first Republican administration in 36 years systematically is getting rid of Democrats.

"This is the current, far-out, left-wing method of attack against the Ehrlich administration?" Finney said. "That was a question. ... Obviously, it's entirely appropriate for a new administration to be able to implement the will of the people in the last election."

Clements, the attorney, says that party affiliation is a protected form of speech that cannot be the basis for firing in all but the highest-ranking employees such as Cabinet secretaries who set policy.

"How does changing a dredging project manager express the will of the people?" Clements said, responding to Finney's comments. "I didn't know that enforcing the First Amendment to the Constitution was left-wing. I suppose that in this administration, it may be."

Gardina has held several jobs throughout his career, including county police officer and computer programmer. He recently received a master's degree in environmental engineering and science from the Johns Hopkins University, and was well-regarded in his new field, Clements said.

Gardina had been given additional responsibilities two working days before his termination, Clements said. The firing was not part of of an effort to eliminate jobs because the agency immediately advertised to fill the vacancy, he said.

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