State fires DSS deputy after she voices criticism

Official said jobs not filled that county would pay for

Howard County

July 13, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Maryland Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe fired Howard County's deputy director of social services seven weeks after she publicly reported that state officials were refusing to fill vacant jobs that Howard County would pay for.

Kathi H. Heslin, 52, of Frederick said state Department of Human Resources personnel officials came to her Columbia office June 30, told her "there is a change in leadership," and gave her 15 minutes to leave.

"I was devastated," said Heslin, who acknowledged that she was in an exempt position and served at the pleasure of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his appointee, McCabe. "I've been with the Department of Human Resources since 1976 and have never done anything but do the best that I could."

The firing left her 18 months' shy of qualifying for her 30-year state pension.

"There was absolutely no reason to let her go," said Melody Higgins, chairwoman of Howard County's social services board. "It's a strong coincidence that after she speaks out, she loses her job."

On May 17, Heslin reported to the board that state officials had refused Howard County permission to fill five vacant clerical positions even though the salaries would be paid for by private and county government funds. The report stated that state officials would not allow the hirings because "the perception of increasing state government is not acceptable."

Heslin's department - like many others in Maryland - has suffered a staff loss of about 30 percent since Maryland's job freeze began in 2001.

"We've all been hit really bad," Heslin was quoted as telling the board in an article May 30 article in The Sun. "We have three people taking 779 applications [for food stamps and medical assistance] a month - every month. It's insane."

McCabe spokesman Norris West said the secretary, a former Republican state senator from Howard County, does not comment on personnel matters.

West said the state has been reviewing job requests from counties and has filled 261 positions statewide. Howard's requests are under review, he said.

Heslin's replacement is Larry C. Pinkett, 57, a five-year employee with a sales and marketing background who said he was laid off with 15 other DHR employees in a budget-cutting move last month. He was formerly family investment director of the Office of Work Opportunities.

Samuel W. Marshall, Howard's 30-year director of social services, called Heslin's performance "outstanding," and "exemplary."

"It's part of a pattern of callous and mean-spirited treatment of employees by the Ehrlich administration," and "it creates a climate of intimidation" in the agency, said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat who heads Howard's House delegation.

"It creates the perception that it's in retaliation for pointing out that they are, for no good reason other than ideological ones, blocking the appointment of added caseworkers in Howard County," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat and former Howard County executive, agreed, and said: "It looks to me like a systematic, intentional dismantling of these social service agencies."

Heslin said her May report to the board was unremarkable.

"I did not lie about anything," she said. "The Department of Human Resources gives us those numbers. Unfortunately, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

After several days of emotional turmoil, she said, "Every day is better. I got past feeling like I had failed and was not a good person."

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