DSS Wonderland: curiouser and curiouser

December 01, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

THE FLAP over who should appoint Baltimore's welfare director has a decided Alice in Wonderland quality. The new director, appointed on an interim basis by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., does not have the legal qualifications for the job.

We are asked to watch while he proves himself.

Alice and the Queen in court come to mind:

"No, no," said the Queen. "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards."

"Stuff and nonsense," said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!"

"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple.

"I won't," said Alice.

"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

That exchange approximates the level of discourse now under way between Governor Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has filed suit to block the appointment, the modern version of turning purple.

But let's be clear. Mr. O'Malley has much the better of this one.

This social service agency desperately needs a permanent, fully qualified director. We're talking life and death here. One has to wonder if an unqualified school superintendent or chief of police or highway department czar would be considered at all, ever.

It happens in this case because poor children and adults are not a powerful constituency.

By law, these two leaders are supposed to be consulting on the appointment of a new director of social services in Baltimore. But Mayor O'Malley says the governor won't consult. The governor essentially agrees: His lawyer says Mr. Ehrlich doesn't have to consult because the appointee, Floyd R. Blair, is acting, not permanent, director. Alice, the Queen and the rest of Maryland see through that one.

Mr. Blair says he should be given a pass. And others say he's an energetic, committed person with some good ideas.

"As an African-American, laws have been used against us in the past to keep us out of certain positions. So I believe we need to take a hard look at that law and say, `Is it valid in today's times?'"

Surely, it is valid. The last two directors of the department, both African-Americans, had the required qualifications. If the law were outdated it should be changed, but don't ignore it.

We're not talking bureaucratic red tape here. The job is hugely difficult even for previous leaders who were qualified. People have died, and those are just the painful disasters we know about. We don't hear about other kids in desperate situations who suffer every day. Do they have time to wait while Mr. Blair proves himself? There are 2,500 employees whose time and energies have to be wisely allocated -- tough enough for seasoned welfare administrators.

For Mr. Ehrlich, this approach to welfare policy is, as Alice would say, curious.

If there's another death, will the state be more vulnerable to civil judgments in court? The Maryland Court of Appeals is examining an issue right now in which a child died, his father alleges, after repeatedly unsuccessful efforts to bring the department's attention to deficiencies in his son's care. If similar suits arise in the future -- under an administrator who did not meet legal qualifications for the job -- would the state be at risk for substantial financial awards? The pending case asks for $10 million in compensatory and $20 million in punitive damages.

Even if we assume Mr. O'Malley was playing politics, the law remains the law. And if the mayor allowed this incursion into his authority, where would the trespassing stop? It's not reasonable to expect him or any other mayor to welcome someone in his cabinet appointed by his political rival, the governor. (Did we mention they could be running against each other for governor next year?)

And what of Mr. Blair? Will he be able to hire, fire and lead with any credibility? He said last week that he's sifting through resumes to see who should stay and who should go. To have an unqualified director deciding on the qualifications of others goes beyond Lewis Carroll (literary father of Alice) to Franz Kafka.

Maybe we'll be lucky here. But helpless kids deserve more than a roll of the dice.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays.

Columnist Ellen Goodman will return Dec. 8.

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