Ehrlich, mayor in standoff over social services post

Despite order to agree on leader, 2 still sparring

July 22, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

More than a week after a judge ordered Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley to agree on a new leader for a city-based social service agency, the two sides show no signs of coming together.

While the mayor's aides say they are taking steps to find a replacement for Floyd R. Blair, there has been no movement on the part of Ehrlich, who hopes to keep Blair in place.

The stalemate set off a new round of sparring yesterday between the fierce political rivals, as a spokesman for O'Malley accused Ehrlich's staff of orchestrating a rally, planned for today, to support Blair's continued leadership of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

"It's hard to believe that these political games are still going on," O'Malley spokesman Stephen Kearney said. "A judge has ordered a real search, and instead, we see the governor's staff sneaking around to organize a political rally. It's time to move forward and find an effective leader for this troubled agency."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, Ehrlich's spokeswoman, disputed Kearney's claim. The state's Department of Human Resources oversees the city's social services department.

"Not only is it unsubstantiated, but to imply that organizations are not rallying in support of Floyd Blair based on his qualifications, in addition to the contributions he has made to DHR, is insulting," she said.

Ehrlich and O'Malley agree that a strong leader is needed to turn around a long-troubled department that is responsible for the welfare of the city's most vulnerable residents. But that's as far as consensus goes between the Republican governor and Democratic mayor, who could square off in the 2006 governor's race.

Ehrlich says he has found the right leader in Blair. But O'Malley contends Blair lacks the experience to qualify for the job.

Against O'Malley's wishes, the Ehrlich administration appointed Blair in September as interim director of DSS, a primarily state-funded agency that serves more than 50,000 children and adults. In November, O'Malley filed a lawsuit seeking Blair's removal because he lacked five years' management experience and the mayor's approval. Both are required by law.

45 days to agree

On July 12, City Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock sided with the mayor and gave the state and city 45 days to agree on someone to lead the agency. But she did not order the immediate removal of Blair from his post.

An employees association for some DSS employees will call for Blair to keep his job at today's rally, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. outside an agency office at 1900 N. Howard St.

"Our position is, this man has been here 10 months and he has done so much," said Alice Nelson, a labor relations specialist for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which has about 100 members in city DSS offices.

MCEA has held meetings at all 13 city DSS offices during work hours, distributing fliers and urging employees to attend the rally - something a rival union says is illegal. Nelson conceded the meetings might be on shaky legal ground, but another MCEA official maintained that they are permitted under state labor law.

"We're not allowed to be on the work site during work hours, so we have to play that tongue in cheek," Nelson said. "Some of the district managers have let it slide. You know, they turned a deaf ear."

Zachary Ramsey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, contends that under state collective bargaining law, his union is the only one with the right to meet with employees at the workplace during work hours. He said that is because DSS employees elected AFSCME their exclusive bargaining representative. The union represents 1,200 to 1,500 city DSS employees, he said.

But Janet Anderson, a spokeswoman for MCEA, said a pending court case between the two employee groups has put those rules in doubt. At least until the Court of Appeals issues a ruling, she said, MCEA "has access in the workplace."

Rally approval

MCEA said the rally was taking place with the approval of officials with DSS, the Department of Human Resources and the governor's office, but not at their direction.

"We have the support of DHR, we have the support of Annapolis," said Linda Day, president of MCEA Chapter 45. "Of course, they can't get involved. They definitely know what's going on."

A DHR spokesman said the department has not played any role in the rally.

"We don't have anything to do with outside activities," spokesman Norris West said.

Since last week's court ruling, the city has taken steps to find candidates for the job, said Kearney, who declined to elaborate.

But Ehrlich has not given up on Blair. On the day of the court ruling, Ehrlich repeated a proposal, first made in April, that the search be turned over to a five-member committee, to which he would name four members and O'Malley would name one. O'Malley's staff has called that plan unacceptable.

"The offer's still on the table," DeLeaver said yesterday.

Asked whether that stance could lead to a finding of contempt of court, DeLeaver said, "Obviously the governor will comply with the law."

No decision has been made whether to appeal last week's ruling, she said.

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