Dream job

July 28, 2004

WANTED: A risk-taking change agent with proven experience in lifting big social agencies out of the muck. Persistence and political finesse preferred. Must work well with others, even if one's bosses may not.

Now that state and city officials have apparently agreed on how they'll choose a permanent head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services, placing ads in The Sun and elsewhere, we can't wait to see who they jointly choose. The political dispute over how the department's interim chief, Floyd R. Blair, got the job has taken too much attention away from the desperate needs of the people it serves -- and cost too much, in lawyers and court time, to remind everyone that "appointed jointly" means when both parties agree.

In addition to stellar people- and money-management skills, solid social services experience and a record of righting steeply tilted agency ships, the city's next welfare chief must have a few more special skills.

The ideal candidate must be able to say "no" to both the state Department of Human Resources director, Christopher J. McCabe, who would be or his or her supervisor, and Mayor Martin O'Malley, in whose Cabinet he or she would sit, if what either wants would hurt services to people in DSS care. The chosen one must have and keep the full support of both governments, including their joint pledge to get other agencies to work more closely with DSS; otherwise, the social service safety net will remain full of holes.

Next, the candidate must show evidence he or she would fight for the money, computers, access to programs and assistance that city DSS workers, and the people in their care, deserve. The city serves the lion's share of needy people in the state, but does not receive a proportionate amount of the state pot. Other sources of funding -- federal or charity -- should also be squeezed to the city's favor.

Finally, having a hide of non-stick coating to withstand media and public scrutiny would be a good idea, too.

To get the best pool of candidates in the scant two weeks before the application deadline, ads also should be placed with the National Association of Social Workers and the American Public Human Services Association job-list Web sites.

Mr. Blair may be considered for the permanent post, but his appointment is unlikely; Mr. O'Malley has said that he'd not choose him. How could he, after investing so much in prying Mr. Blair from the position to make a point? Baltimore would be best served at this point by a smooth transition to new DSS leadership.

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