The firing line

October 11, 2006

One month before a closely contested gubernatorial election is not the ideal time to discuss serious reform of the state personnel system, but the opportunity has presented itself nonetheless. A 135-page draft report released this week by the legislative committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices makes a pretty damning case against the governor. But it's also a familiar one by now - and so the report is unlikely to move voters one way or the other.

If anything, the timing of the document's release may even generate sympathy for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his view that the investigation has been little more than a political smear. Never mind that the administration's foot-dragging over the release of documents and other objections likely had as much to do with the committee's timetable (and expenses) as any deliberate attempt to embarrass the governor.

This much is clear: The firings of certain midlevel state employees because of political affiliation and not merit exceeded the customary patronage boundaries in Annapolis. That is a legitimate cause for concern - and not just for the employees who had the misfortune of losing their jobs. The quality of state government suffers if it cannot attract talented employees to vital positions in civil service.

Indeed, the report's most important conclusions are its recommendations to reform the state's personnel system to prevent such abuses. At issue is what to do about Maryland's 7,000 or so at-will employees who dwell in a gray area between the state's merit system and outright political appointees.

The report calls for clarifying employee rights and giving future victims of political firings an opportunity to sue. It also recommends that many of these workers should be given greater protections and that an employee's dismissal should be at the discretion of supervisors at the agency where he or she works and not to the governor's appointments office or to political hatchet men from outside the chain of command.

Every governor should have the right to hire and fire people in top policymaking positions and to trim the state work force, if necessary. But the arbitrary termination of competent employees served neither purpose and ought not be repeated no matter who wins in November.

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