Staff members rally for city Social Services chief

Pickets back Blair, saying he made positive changes

July 23, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

About 50 people rallied outside a child protection office last night to support Baltimore social services chief Floyd R. Blair, who is at the center of a legal and political battle between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Carrying signs that read, "This is raw politics" and "Hip hip hooray, we want Blair to stay," the demonstrators said Blair was making positive changes at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and should be kept on the job.

"He needs to be given a chance," said Sharon Lee, who has worked as a family services caseworker for three years.

Also yesterday, Maryland Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe, who oversees Social Services offices around the state, announced that he had appointed Marci Van De Mark as interim director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

This month, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. had taken the unusual step of naming Van De Mark, a nine-year veteran, as interim director before discussing the post with the state. Smith contended that he needed to act quickly to assure that services were not disrupted by the departure of Barbara Gradet, who left to lead Jewish Family Services.

But the move appeared to be in contrast to what happened in the city, when McCabe installed Blair unilaterally in September.

Blair's appointment was made over the objections of O'Malley, a Democrat who is expected to try to take the Republican governor's job in the 2006 election.

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 for the director of the Social Services department, a state agency charged with protecting the city's most vulnerable children and adults.

Last week, a Baltimore Circuit judge ruled that the state did not have the right to install Blair without the mayor's consent.

Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock gave the state and city 45 days to agree on someone to lead the agency, but did not order Blair's immediate removal.

While the ruling was a victory for the city, Ehrlich and other Blair supporters say it doesn't have to amount to a pink slip for the interim director. They say he still should be considered a candidate for the job.

That was the message plastered across signs and blared through bullhorns outside a round-the-clock Social Services office at 1900 N. Howard St., where the protest kicked off about 5 p.m.

The office houses one of the department's Child Protective Services offices, and since last month, phones there have been monitored 24 hours a day so that caseworkers can respond immediately to reports of child abuse.

Rally organizers said they chose the site to highlight that change, one of many they said Blair had made for the better at the agency.

"It's one of his accomplishments," said Janet Anderson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which encouraged employees to attend the rally with fliers and a series of workplace meetings.

But when the change was made last month, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, noted that he had urged the state to make caseworkers available 24 hours a day five months before Blair acted.

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