2 seek to undo 5 firings at PSC

Williams and McDonald `troubled' by abruptness

Was Schisler on firm ground?

Attorney general's opinion is sought

April 27, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Two Maryland Public Service Commission members are challenging the controversial firings of top professionals at the agency that regulates Maryland's utilities, saying the PSC chairman's action has damaged the commission's ability to decide complex issues and made it a hostile workplace.

Commissioners Harold D. Williams and Gail C. McDonald sought an opinion yesterday from state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. on whether PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler had the authority to terminate five staff members without the knowledge or consent of the other commissioners.

The two commissioners, who said they depended upon the staffers for technical expertise, said the firings this month will hamper their ability to balance the needs of consumers and business as they face critical decisions about electricity rate increases as price caps begin expiring as part of deregulation of the electric market.

"We are troubled by the abrupt manner in which several of our employees were terminated without explanation unilaterally by the chairman," the commissioners said in the letter, which was hand-delivered to the attorney general's office.

"The abrupt terminations caused irreparable harm to the commission and has created a hostile and unhealthy workplace."

Three of the employees had specialized expertise in utility accounting, engineering and rate cases, while two handled consumer complaints and public education.

The employees were placed on administrative leave April 15, with their terminations becoming effective Thursday. Schisler, a Republican former state legislator who was appointed chairman of the five-member commission by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in May, has refused to discuss the firings, calling them "personnel decisions."

The chairman declined comment yesterday on the letter.

The other four commissioners, all Democrats, were appointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

`At will'

Williams and McDonald are seeking an opinion on the division of authority to hire and fire 35 "at will" management employees that serve at the pleasure of the commission, including the five who were dismissed.

The commission had been granted independent salary-setting authority by the legislature for the "at will" employees, in order to attract and retain people with high credentials, commissioners said. About 130 people work for the commission.

"Any personnel decisions that are being made, we want to feel in ourselves that it is the correct one, that people are being treated properly or fairly, and that we would have a quality of work life here at the commission," Williams said in an interview yesterday.

"At this point, I don't think that we have a quality of work life here. I believe it's time for the entire commission to take on the responsibilities of making sure the organization is run properly."

The five fired staff members are: Andrew Mosier, chief hearing examiner; Blaine L. Keener, chief engineer; Randy Allen, director of accounting; Robert Higginbothan, chief public information officer; and Chrys Wilson, manager of external relations.

The employees were given no notice or explanation and were escorted by armed guards from the PSC offices in the William Donald Schaefer Tower in downtown Baltimore.

"We have not been given any understanding of why they were released," Williams said.

"They have been providing us the technical knowledge and support that we require, and if there was a problem with the employees we should have been the first to know."

As a result of the dismissals, morale has sunk at the PSC, commissioners said.

"Some employees have just found out they're `at will,' McDonald said.

"They're nervous. ... We're frustrated because we don't have the kind of assistance we need to do our work, and we have a large agenda coming up."

"People here are just apprehensive, and not sure what the future holds for them," Williams said.

Commissioner J. Joseph Curran III, the senior commissioner and the son of the Maryland attorney general, recused himself from signing the letter. But he said he supports his colleagues' efforts to understand the scope of their responsibilities as commissioners.

"The unilateral decision to terminate several of our trusted advisers has brought the issue forward as to what the appropriate role is for each commissioner here," Curran said. "That decision is inconsistent with past practices."

A fourth commissioner, Ronald A. Guns, has not commented on the firings. He did not return a phone call yesterday.

Williams said he hopes the attorney general will clarify the responsibilities and duties of the commissioners so "we will be able to assist in the running of this agency. ...

"It would be my wish that the opinion will support ... maybe reinstating these individuals or providing a severance package that would be acceptable."

In the letter, the commissioners also have asked for opinions on hiring and termination authority for state merit employees that fall into management service, professional service, skilled service and contractual employee categories.

They have asked for an opinion as well on authority over hiring and firing managers and directors that were hired with the approval of the entire commission, and for the three senior level managers that have statutory positions, including the PSC's general counsel, executive secretary and executive director.

Day-to-day authority

In addition, the letter seeks an opinion on the commissioners' authority over day-to-day operations of the divisions within the commission.

Robert N. McDonald, chief counsel in the attorney general's office, acknowledged receipt of the letter but declined to discuss it.

"I'm hoping we can get them some kind of response soon, but other than that I can't comment," he said.

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