Maintaining a morass

December 17, 2003

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley tried a legal gambit yesterday and lost, but his point remains: There's still trouble in the city's Department of Social Services.

The city went to court seeking to stop the agency's interim director, Floyd R. Blair, from hiring and firing staff and making other structural changes until its lawsuit disputing Mr. Blair's hiring is heard.

The city's appeal for a temporary restraining order was based on politics - the argument that the actions Mr. Blair is taking cause irreparable harm to the mayor's right to have a say in the agency. Because the city's only statutory voice in the agency is helping to choose its director, and the state did not include the mayor in its hiring of Mr. Blair, there is merit to the argument - but it will have to wait until the full lawsuit is heard.

It is not, in any case, enough to bring the entire 2,400-employee agency to a halt, especially because it is not at all clear that Mr. Blair is making all these decisions. He follows the lead of state Department of Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe and Gov. Robert J. Ehrlich Jr., and uses the DHR press office as his spokesmen. People are being fired and hired up and down the ranks of both agencies in what looks to be the usual shakeup after a state regime change.

DSS is not the mayor's agency, but it also isn't wholly the state's. Baltimore's DSS, as are those of the 23 counties, is a hybrid. It's run by the state but led by a director who is both a state employee and, in the city, a member of the mayor's Cabinet. That director needs to balance the special needs of this city with the directives from Annapolis, as well as plead for more resources from both. It's no simple job.

The verbal sniping among Mr. O'Malley, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. McCabe - or, really, among their minions and their lawyers - has overshadowed the real debate: how best to reconstitute DSS so more city families get the help they deserve. The 47,500 Baltimoreans whose lives are immediately affected by DSS now must wait for Circuit Judge Kaye A. Allison - or mediators - to resolve this personnel dispute.

The department suffers from years of underfunding and lack of attention. Some children in foster care aren't getting the services they need, and some families have trouble getting the food and medical vouchers they are entitled to. DSS isn't meeting the guidelines of a consent decree it agreed to 14 years ago; it isn't meeting the requirements of a 4-year-old state law limiting caseloads. The department does need an overhaul, and changing staffing and programs is part of the solution. But there's no sign the state is going about this the right way.

It's unfortunate that this has wound up in court; it is in the best interests of all concerned for it to move quickly.

As his campaign promised, Governor Ehrlich is bent on change. But by not working with the city on a joint appointment and by not explaining why his departments are doing what they are doing, one cannot say he is changing things for the better.

Perhaps these vaunted plans will come to light in court, when the defendants will have to explain why they are so attached to Mr. Blair that they would compromise the social services agency they have pledged to repair.

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