O'Malley to sue governor over city appointee

He asks injunction to oust director of social services

`Groundless,' Ehrlich aide says

Lawyer was hired without obtaining mayor's consent

November 24, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he plans to file suit against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. today, contending that the governor appointed a director who lacks the required management experience and city approval to lead Baltimore's long-troubled social services agency.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering Ehrlich to remove Floyd R. Blair as director of the Department of Social Services and to allow O'Malley to play a role in conducting a search for a qualified manager, according to a copy of the lawsuit to be filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The Ehrlich administration picked Blair, 39, a lawyer and former welfare case worker from New York, on Sept. 3 without obtaining the mayor's consent, despite a state law that says the city and state must jointly choose the director.

O'Malley said he objects to the selection in part because Blair has no significant management experience, which violates a legal requirement that the agency's director have five years' experience as an administrator.

Yesterday, Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said, "It's my understanding that the lawsuit is groundless because it's well within the governor's prerogative to appoint an interim leader, and until this point we expected Mr. O'Malley to concur."

Secretary of Human Services Christopher J. McCabe, who picked Blair for the job, said yesterday that the state plans to employ him as interim director indefinitely, until O'Malley realizes Blair's talents and agrees to make him permanent director.

Employing an interim director for a long time is not illegal or unusual, McCabe said. Yvonne Gilchrist, the former city social services director who left in June to lead Washington's welfare office, was selected by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration and served for 18 months as interim director before former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to make her director, he said.

Blair was not available for comment yesterday.

O'Malley said the agency - which was criticized as understaffed and underfunded after the torture death of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes last year and is now threatened by further state cuts - needs a veteran administrator to better protect children and complain if Ehrlich decides to slash the budget further. O'Malley said he worries that a novice who owes his job to Ehrlich is unlikely to stand up to the governor. As director, Blair is a member of the mayor's Cabinet. O'Malley is a Democrat, and Ehrlich is a Republican.

The state attorney general's office issued an opinion Sept. 23 stating that both the mayor and governor have a "co-equal" power to appoint the city's social services director and that "neither can act without the other." In his lawsuit, O'Malley claims that the state's selection of Blair was unilateral and, therefore, illegal.

"We need to have the best, most qualified professional we can to run this department. They'd rather have somebody who is beholden to them who does not have the experience required," O'Malley said. "This selection may be helpful to them politically, but it is not helpful to the vulnerable children and the Department of Social Services."

Blair worked most recently for 17 months as an associate director of President Bush's Center for Faith Based & Community Initiatives, acting as a planner and liaison between government agencies. The project uses religious organizations to help provide government-funded services for the needy.

The city department has 2,500 employees, a budget of about $1.6 billion a year, and serves about 7,000 children in foster care and 40,000 residents receiving temporary cash assistance, among other needy people.

The director is a state employee, and the state supplies more than 99 percent of the money - much of it federal grants - to run the department, with the city contributing less than 1 percent, McCabe said. So it's not surprising that the state should play a lead role in picking the director, he said.

"The city is not really contributing much in terms of running the department, and it is not able to," McCabe said. "I don't see why they would want to drive a wedge between the city and state - and lawsuits drive wedges between parties."

McCabe said Blair is a good leader for the agency because he can inspire people with his success story as someone who grew up on welfare and went on to earn a law degree and work for Bush.

"When I was appointed to this position, I didn't have the experience to run a 7,400-person agency, but I have proved effective," said McCabe, a former state senator who was picked by Ehrlich in January. "When the mayor was elected, he didn't have the experience to run the city, but he proved effective. And now Mr. Blair is proving himself effective."

DeLeaver said Blair was not chosen to be silent about budget cuts. "The governor is not in the business of appointing bobbleheads or yes men," she said. "He appoints qualified leaders, and we have one in Floyd Blair."

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