3 on PSC report standoff on firings

Commissioners say chairman refused to discuss April 15 action

April 29, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Three members of the Maryland Public Service Commission emerged yesterday from a lengthy closed-door meeting with Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler on his abrupt decision to fire five key employees and said the commission was in a standoff on the legality of that move and was probably headed for court.

Schisler told fellow commissioners at the meeting that he has the sole power to fire employees and would not rescind his decision. Schisler also said he would not discuss employee issues with them, the commissioners said.

The commissioners questioned that power and expressed frustration with Schisler's refusal to discuss the issue with them.

Schisler, a Republican former state legislator who was appointed chairman of the five-member commission by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in May, also refused to comment on the dispute in public yesterday.

"It'll be in court," said Harold D. Williams, one of three Democratic commissioners challenging the firings. "That's probably what [the employees] will end up doing. It's their decision now. He gave us no explanation."

The dispute began April 15 when Schisler fired three technical advisers and two public information officials without consulting his four commission colleagues. Commissioners Williams, Gail C. McDonald and J. Joseph "Max" Curran protested and demanded that the employees be reinstated. Commissioner Ronald A. Guns declined to comment on the firings.

The firings have been criticized by the commissioners and by several members of the General Assembly who questioned the logic behind dismissing employees who were relied upon for technical expertise as the PSC faces critical decisions about electricity rate increases during Maryland's transition to a deregulated power market.

Three of the employees specialized in utility accounting, engineering and rate cases. They were all placed on administrative leave April 15, with the terminations to take effect today.

Whether Schisler had the power to fire them is a legal question that remains unsettled.

PSC General Counsel Susan Stevens Miller has determined that Schisler has the right to make personnel decisions on his own. But an advisory letter issued by the Maryland attorney general's office this week said the chairman lacks the right to summarily terminate the employees unless that power had been delegated by the commission.

Because the commission is the "appointing authority, the commission, as a whole, would be the body with the authority to remove these employees. ... The case law makes clear that an employee can be removed only by the appointing authority," the attorney general's letter said.

"The chairman clearly believes he has the right," Max Curran said. "It's a question of legalities. My position is that these folks should be reinstated. I did not delegate my authority in terms of hiring and firing to the chairman or any other person on the commission."

Morton Edelstein, an attorney representing three of the fired employees, said his clients will appeal their terminations with Schisler today. The chairman has 15 days after an appeal is filed to reply, at which time the employees could decide to file a lawsuit with the Circuit Court.

In an appeal filed Tuesday for the fired PSC manager of external relations, Chrys Wilson, attorney Timothy F. Maloney said Schisler's decision "was unlawful and exceeds the chairman's authority."

Wilson was denied a "pre-termination hearing," the letter said, and was "a nonpolicy-making employee who was fired for her political affiliation and views in violation of the First Amendment and Article 10 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights."

Demanding immediate reinstatement to her position, a public apology and retraction, Wilson also accused Schisler of making false and defamatory statements that cast Wilson and the other terminated employees in a false light when he told news organizations that "the people let go did not meet his standards for work ethic," the letter said.

"Ultimately, majority rule will prevail," Maloney said. "The law will not sustain the actions of a rogue chairman. We don't have a one-man commission; we have a five-member commission."

Edelstein, who is representing Andrew Mosier, chief hearing examiner; Blaine L. Keener, chief engineer; and Randy Allen, director of accounting, also accused Schisler of playing party politics.

"It was unconstitutional," Edelstein said. "It appears these terminations were the result of these individuals' political party affiliations. I would certainly hope that he'll review his decision and realize he's made an error. It takes a very mature person to realize they have made an error, rectify the error and reconcile with the individuals. If he doesn't rescind the action, we will be filing for a court order."

Efforts to reach the lawyer for Robert Higginbothan, the chief public information officer who was fired, were unsuccessful.

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