GOP majority ousts director of Md. health care agency

No explanation given

no successor named

December 02, 2004|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

With a Republican-appointed majority in control, the Maryland Health Care Commission fired yesterday its executive director, Barbara G. McLean, a career state employee who had headed the regulatory agency for the past four years.

The board cited no reason for its decision, which was effective immediately.

One commissioner who opposed the action, Ernest B. Crofoot, said seven appointees named to the commission by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had voted to end McLean's tenure, while three Democratic holdovers voted against her dismissal.

"There was absolutely no reason given, except, `We can do it, and we're going to do it,'" he said. The decision was reached in a closed session conducted by telephone conference call.

"I have never in my 60 years of labor relations seen such a crass and unfair personnel action," said Crofoot, a lifelong union activist who has served as an international vice-president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He termed the vote "totally, absolutely political."

Stephen J. Salamon, who became the commission's chairman in October - the same month that Ehrlich's appointees became a majority - declined to respond directly to Crofoot's charges or state any reason for the action, saying he could not discuss personnel decisions.

"We acted according to authority we have under Maryland law," Salamon said.

The commission regulates the health insurance benefits offered by small employers. It also makes decisions critical to the revenue of various health care facilities, including approval of much hospital construction and granting or denying hospitals permission to perform expensive procedures such as open heart surgery.

`No reason, no nothing'

McLean said she received "no cause, no reason, no nothing" and that the commissioners had never given her any indication of dissatisfaction with her performance.

"I have always dealt with controversial issues," she said, "but I've never been the source of controversy myself."

In a written statement, she cited her 22 years of "nonpartisan state service," noting, "I have served Democrats and Republicans professionally."

She said she will not appeal because it was clear that the director served at the pleasure of the commissioners.

Ehrlich's appointees to state commissions have conducted two other high-profile staff dismissals this year that triggered court challenges. The chairman of the Public Service Commission fired five staff members in April, but a Baltimore Circuit Court judge later ruled in one of those cases that the chairman didn't have the authority to act unilaterally. An appeal is pending. And the state Board of Elections voted to fire Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone in September, but Lamone challenged the action in court and returned to her post under a settlement agreement.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, praised McLean for her "good, objective review" of proposed legislation, but said, "I understand when you have a new commission with a new agenda, you've got to have people who will navigate with you."

"I understand how the process works," he said. "You haven't had a Republican governor in Maryland in more than 30 years, and they want to bring their people in."

Henry P. Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said any suggestion that there is a concerted effort for Ehrlich appointees to various commissions to replace staff members is "unfair and unfounded."

Salamon said the action had "absolutely not" been suggested by anyone outside the commission. "I'm my own person," he said. "I'm not afraid to lead, and I will lead."

McLean, who submitted a letter of resignation after getting a termination notice, was a legislative health analyst and worked for the University of Maryland professional schools before becoming deputy director of the commission in 1996. She was named acting director in 2000, when her predecessor left, and was chosen as executive director the next year.

By law, the director is appointed by the commission with approval of the governor, who was Democrat Parris N. Glendening at the time.

Dr. Donald E. Wilson, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland, who chaired the commission for 10 years until October, said the commission conducted a search when the executive director's job was open but "it was basically a no-brainer to give her the job."

Her performance, he said, was "beyond being good."

"She did the homework and always gave you an honest reading," he said. "She would tell me things I didn't want to hear. She tells you the facts in a straightforward way, and you could make a decision based on the facts."

The commission did not name a new director or acting director yesterday. Salamon said the panel would act quickly, but didn't offer specifics. Crofoot said the question of succession was raised, but not answered, during the commission's session.

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