Partisan war claims plenty of casualties

October 13, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

There was a great New Yorker cartoon a couple of years back, showing a lone employee in one of those tiny drive-though photo-developing booths, complaining on the phone to a friend: "You have no idea how political this place is."

Everyone thinks their workplace is political, so in one sense, the draft report released this week on the firing of state employees after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office in 2003 was a yawner: Holdovers from previous Democratic administrations were fired after the first Republican was elected in more than three decades - imagine that.

Welcome to the two-party system.

But you don't have to be nostalgic for the days when Democrats ran everything in the state to be troubled by the report - and how it is just one more salvo in the increasingly fractious partisan battle that has characterized state politics in recent years.

Yesterday was a case in point: The General Assembly's Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections, which has been investigating the firings of the state employees for more than a year, met again to discuss the draft report that was issued Monday. The Republican lawmakers on the committee, who had issued a separate report - basically a retort disavowing the findings of the committee, which is dominated by Democrats - simply didn't show up.

So the Dems proceeded on their own, continuing to carry the banner of the aggrieved ex-employees who said their firings were politically motivated. The missing Republicans, for their part, say the investigation into the firings is politically motivated.

State bureaucrats, as a group, probably don't draw immediate sympathy among the masses, many of whom, when they think of public employees at all, think of the slow-moving lines at the MVA or the faceless human voice you finally reach when you get past the automated phone system at an agency - the one who tells you you've got the wrong department and you'll just have to call the main number and start over.

But of course, as a group, they're just like those in any other workplace - some are worthless, some are stellar, most are somewhere in between. Even if they have to be let go, there's no reason they should be treated "like out-and-out criminals," as Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons said yesterday, referring to Public Service Commission staffers who were marched out of their building under guard, their photographs left with security in case they tried to come back in.

Yes, the PSC, back in the news again. The committee's counsel, Ward B. Coe III, said yesterday that an employer who wants to invite litigation over a firing should handle it the way the PSC did. One of the fired employees, Chrys Wilson, indeed sued successfully to regain her job - but then was promptly fired again. (And, of course, the PSC itself was fired, by the General Assembly in June, but reinstated by the state Court of Appeals in September.)

Maybe it's because layoffs and cutbacks have hovered over newspapers in recent years, but I couldn't help but sympathize with some of the fired employees. The image of them being tapped on the shoulder out of the blue, and escorted into a room and fired - often after racking up years of positive performance reviews - isn't so distant or far-fetched a scenario these days, in any number of workplaces. (And, in fact, one of the fired state employees went on to several other jobs, including one at The Sun until, the committee noted, "that position was eliminated in December 2005.")

Surely no firing is ever pleasant. And surely the state doesn't have a lock on ushering employees out the door in a particularly unseemly manner. This summer, Radio Shack laid off some employees by e-mail.

But you have to hope that if and when the office Grim Reaper comes for you, he's not named Joseph F. Steffen Jr. Yes, the one-time Ehrlich aide and self-styled "Prince of Darkness" emerges as the most colorful villain in the firings drama. He was the guy sent into a state office to do the dirty work - and he seemed to enjoy it just a little too much. Employees told of him sitting in on staff meetings just to "observe." One worker remembered introducing herself to him, only to be told, "I know who you are." Indeed, she was ultimately fired.

Firings - or "OUTS!" as Steffen gleefully termed them - may be a fact of life, particularly in public jobs. The committee yesterday voted to recommend some changes in how the state hires and fires these so-called "at will" staffers.

Which may not be of much comfort for those who have already been fired, but should be of interest to those working for the state now, during this election year.

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