Mayor moves to limit Blair

City to seek order to stop interim chief from making changes at social services

December 16, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for Mayor Martin O'Malley are to appear in court this morning to seek a restraining order to stop the Ehrlich administration from hiring, firing or making other changes to the Baltimore Department of Social Services until a dispute over the agency's leadership is resolved.

One of the mayor's fears is that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, will "lard" the agency with unqualified Republican operatives, said a spokesman for O'Malley, a Democrat.

City attorneys will argue that Ehrlich's appointment Sept. 3 of Floyd R. Blair, a former Bush administration official, as interim director of the agency was illegal because Blair does not have the five years of management experience or the city approval required for the job.

The city is asking Circuit Judge Kaye A. Allison to prevent Blair from making changes to the 2,400-employee agency, contending that Blair's appointment was illegal, so any decisions he makes are illegal, according to the court motion.

"They are making decisions that affect children and affect employees' lives, without a plan that they've told anyone about," said Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for the mayor.

"It's a shame that we have to ask a judge to intervene. But we've asked about the people they've fired, and they tell us they haven't fired anyone," Kearney said. "It's time to end this foolishness."

On Nov. 19, Blair sent letters to three veteran assistant directors -- in charge of finance, welfare programs and information technology for the agency -- telling them they would be terminated effective Dec. 5.

The letters thanked the administrators for their services and went on to say: "If you wish, you may resign in lieu of termination," according to documents provided to The Sun.

In October, Blair promoted to deputy director for operations of the department -- a $75,389- a-year job -- a twice-failed Republican candidate for City Council president, Anthony D. Cobb, who had been hired by the Ehrlich administration for a lesser job in May.

Cobb, a former director of interagency services for the Baltimore offices of the National Federation of the Blind from 1986 to last year, holds a master's degree in public administration from Drake University and is a longtime Republican Party activist.

He ran unsuccessfully for council president in 1991 and 1995.

Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the agency, described Cobb as a "very bright individual" with long years of service helping the blind who is now "part of the leadership team."

"The idea of having fewer assistant directors is part of the plan for the department, which should have a leaner and more nimble organizational chart," said West.

The mayor's office called the terminations of the veteran administrators, and the hiring of an inexperienced former Republican political candidate, harmful to the operations of the agency, which serves about 7,500 foster children in the city, as well as about 40,000 families on welfare.

"It's hard to see how we're going to bring the Department of Social Services into the 21st century by larding it with 1940s-style patronage," said Kearney. "It seems to confirm our fears about the [Ehrlich] administration's intentions."

On Oct. 30, Blair -- who earns $105,183 a year -- wrote to the city's acting budget chief asking for an additional $35,000 "salary supplement" for his position starting on July 1, according to the document.

On Dec. 4, Blair's agency announced plans to hire 50 caseworkers for foster children and families that receive welfare assistance in the city, and reported the "recent" installation of 1,000 computers.

But officials later said that computer purchase was approved more than two years ago by the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and that installation began months before Ehrlich or Blair took office and was completed in May.

On Friday, O'Malley called Blair to tell him about the city's request for the restraining order and to ask him to stop hiring and firing people without authority. The mayor's press office said O'Malley was cordial but that Blair became belligerent during the call.

However, West, acting as Blair's spokesman, suggested that O'Malley was rude to Blair. "Mr. Blair has made it really clear that he would always be respectful to the mayor," West said.

"He doesn't believe he's been treated respectfully by the mayor, however, so it hasn't been reciprocal," West said.

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