Personnel politics

March 02, 2006

At the top of the Maryland General Assembly's Web page is a red-lettered link to a one-page plea for tips about state employee firings. The message is signed by Ward B. Coe III, the lawyer hired by the legislature's Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections. It's notable for this reason: No other legislative effort of any kind receives such a prominent posting. Of course, no other committee in the legislature has been given the authority to hire an outside counsel like Mr. Coe to assist its investigations. And certainly no other committee has been handed the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

From the beginning, the General Assembly's special personnel committee has gotten red-letter treatment. And with all the build-up, one would think the legislature would be eager to embrace personnel reform. One would be wrong. Many of the same Democrats who were quick to lambaste Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for his ousting of midlevel career bureaucrats now seem to have developed icicles in their loafers. (Translation: Don't hold your breath waiting for a bill to pass this session.)

That's a mistake. Six months ago, Democrats were all over the Ehrlich administration for its employee firings. Ehrlich administration officials claimed the investigation was no more than a political hatchet job designed to embarrass the governor. But Democrats insisted it was nothing of the kind and, to their credit, have kept the proceedings low-key - appointing Del. Adrienne A. Jones and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, two of the least-partisan Democrats in the legislature, as co-chairs.

By not pushing personnel reforms now, Democrats are giving Republican complaints a lot of credibility. Voters' interest in this issue is tenuous, but their sense of fairness is not. If Democrats were so bothered by the firing of apolitical state employees, why haven't they made a serious attempt at reform? Why not give civil service protections to at least one of these 7,000 workers? Maybe because Democrats expect those jobs to be handed over to Democrats next year.

There's still time for the legislature to act. Senator Middleton has said he thinks some changes are in order. Others on the commission might not be pleased with a hastily produced reform bill (if only because it would seem to reward the Ehrlich administration's foot-dragging) instead of waiting for more complete findings. Too bad.

Whether Joseph F. Steffen Jr. testifies or not, it's clear that 7,000 people shouldn't serve at the pleasure of one elected official. Qualified supervisors and managers ought to make such personnel decisions, not a hatchet-for-hire Prince of Darkness. It's time Democrats stopped taking potshots and started taking action.

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