McCabe is told he fostered fear at social services

Secretary fired Heslin after she voiced criticism

Dismissal has `chilling effect'

Human resources chief denies any intimidation

Howard County

August 18, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

State Secretary of Human Resources Christopher J. McCabe was accused this week of creating a climate of fear among social workers because of his abrupt firing of a Howard social services official in June shortly after she aired complaints to the local social services board.

County social services board member Gerald M. Richman, an attorney, told McCabe during a board meeting in Columbia late Monday that the firing of assistant county social services director Kathi Heslin - just weeks after she told board members that staff shortages were creating serious problems and that state officials refused to fill vacant state jobs that Howard County would pay for - could mean staff would no longer give the board unpleasant news.

"Kathi Heslin is a very sore point with me," Richman began, telling McCabe that "she was reporting to the board" when she talked about the vacant jobs.

"It has a very chilling effect on these people [state employees] who sit with us and report to us," Richman told McCabe.

After the meeting, board Chairwoman Melody Higgins said the firing had a traumatic impact on everyone associated with the agency - not just employees.

"Her firing caused high anxiety among board members and the remaining assistant directors. We didn't want to do anything that might jeopardize anyone else's job because we didn't know why Kathi was fired," Higgins said.

McCabe refused to respond directly to Richman at the public board meeting. But he said he did not want employees to be intimidated. "We don't want a chilling effect," he said. "We have no policy, written or unwritten, to stifle information."

McCabe, a Republican and former Howard County state senator, added that it "is distressing to me to have very sensitive information regarding appointments and personnel in the newspapers."

But sources in other social service offices said that McCabe's actions speak much louder than his words.

"Everyone is terrified about speaking up about anything," one veteran social worker said, refusing to be identified for fear of retribution.

McCabe said he came to the monthly Howard County Social Services Board meeting Monday afternoon to brief members on the selection process for a new county director to replace recently retired Sam Marshall - a choice he said he hopes to make with Howard County Executive James N. Robey by Oct. 1.

The secretary then suggested the state may soon approve filling several of the vacant clerical positions that Howard County will pay for and has approved filling six child welfare vacancies in Howard County.

"Clearly, to the extent we are able to, the state absolutely appreciates the support from the county. I'm in the process of reviewing recommendations for Howard and other counties," McCabe said.

A 28-year state employee whom Marshall praised as "exemplary," Heslin was fired seven weeks after her presentation on staffing woes that have cost the agency over one-third of its peak staff since 2001 because of state budget difficulties.

Heslin, 52, of Frederick, said yesterday she is still searching for a job.

She told the board in May that the state refused to fill the badly needed clerical jobs, even though the county would pay the salaries because "the perception of increasing state government is not acceptable."

She told the board that the Howard office had three people taking 779 applications for food stamps and medical assistance every month. "It's insane," she told the board.

McCabe has quarreled with several local government officials.

His biggest battle has been with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who filed suit to block McCabe's choice for city social services director and won. The two sides are trying to come up with a director on whom they can agree.

McCabe also angered Robey in July by naming Doris Mason interim county social services director without consulting the county executive, who had recommended another person for the job. Social Services is a state agency, but Maryland law requires agreement on the director between state and local government officials. McCabe and Robey later agreed to jointly appoint a six-member panel to narrow the number of candidates, and he told board members he and Robey would then try to agree on one of the final three.

On Monday, McCabe told county board members that he has picked Jennifer McMahan, his director of Human Resources; Brian Shea, executive director of the department's Child Support Enforcement Administration; and Rebecca Bridgert, director of Charles County social services, to help choose a permanent replacement for Marshall, who retired July 30. Robey appointed Raquel Sanudo, Howard County chief administrative officer; Susan Rosenbaum, citizen services director; and Higgins, the social services board chairman, to join the effort.

"Hopefully, we'll come to some kind of consensus," McCabe said, noting that Mason is a candidate for the Howard job.

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