Politics first, families last

November 25, 2003

IT'S HARD to believe that the state's best choice for Baltimore's ailing Department of Social Services is someone who does not meet the job qualifications set down by law. It also is hard to believe that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley can't make his objection heard without filing a lawsuit.

One certainly could argue with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s installing Floyd R. Blair as interim director, bypassing the spirit and the letter of the law that states the director must be chosen jointly with the city.

Meanwhile, the mayor wants to be part of the solution so badly that he can think of nothing else to do but sue the state. That's about the least likely thing to foster cooperation.

In response, Christopher J. McCabe, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources, tells The Sun's Tom Pelton that Mr. Blair will remain on the job as interim director until the mayor just gives up and approves him. That's just a schoolyard dare.

On all sides, officials' cries sound a lot like a 2-year-old's. We sent letters and they didn't respond. We called and underlings called back. We had meetings, but they behaved badly.

Guess what: You all are behaving badly.

If the governor and the mayor can't put their heads together and their politics aside to find someone who is qualified and agreeable to all, then they're not trying hard enough. There are DSS-like agency chiefs who have management chops and inspirational stories all over the country. And the joint appointment system has worked for a decade, including just this year in Frederick County, where all sides met and agreed to appoint its current director, Diane W. Gordy, without so much of a fuss.

This brouhaha stinks of the political; two hardheads who are likely to face off for the next-term governor's spot not wanting to share. But really, if Baltimoreans are going to have to put up with such partisan sniping all the way up to the next gubernatorial election, the least the combatants could do is pick on an agency whose failings don't end up with kids dead.

DSS isn't a toy, it's an emergency blanket for endangered children and for desperate families. The department needs serious repair, the kind an inspirational, accomplished manager could effect. He or she will only succeed, though, with the aid of both the city and the state.

So start cooperating already. And save the speechifying for next year.

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