Irony on ice

June 19, 2007

The issue of state government hiring and firing is back in the news again thanks to an administrative law judge's ruling in favor of Gregory J. Maddalone, the former figure skater most recently turned Department of Transportation homeland security expert. He was a central figure in the squabble over the Ehrlich administration's personnel policies, so the irony was too obvious to miss: Mr. Maddalone used to help fire people for allegedly political reasons and now the O'Malley administration is having trouble firing him under what may be similar circumstances.

Or are they? What Judge Susan A. Sinrod actually decided was that Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari couldn't discharge someone as unqualified for a job until the job's qualifications are identified. That's not a ruling about politics so much as procedure.

Naturally, Republicans have spoken up loudly to claim hypocrisy. It was lawmakers from Gov. Martin O'Malley's political party who complained bitterly two years ago about then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s firings - and launched a formal investigation into the matter. Certainly, it's safe to assume that the Democratic-dominated General Assembly won't be sending Mr. Porcari a subpoena anytime soon.

But the real problem is a bit more nuanced than that. The investigation into the Ehrlich firings revealed numerous examples of Annapolis patronage going a few steps too far. It wasn't about traditional political hires - Cabinet members, senior aides and the like. And it certainly wasn't about agencies trying to get the best and most qualified people to fill jobs in the normal chain of command.

Rather, what happened was that some Ehrlich hatchet-wielders (Joseph F. Steffen Jr. being the most notorious) were dispatched to agencies to target employees for firing. Many of their victims were career workers whose jobs, for various reasons, lacked traditional civil service protections. This was a gray area of personnel policy that lawmakers hadn't previously considered - likely because Mr. Ehrlich was Maryland's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew.

This isn't to excuse Democrats. After making so much noise about what happened during the Ehrlich years, they failed to reduce the number of so-called at-will employees when they had a chance earlier this year. Could it be because they wanted to give the newly elected governor a free hand in personnel matters? It's hard to see it any other way. That was their moment of genuine hypocrisy, and at the very least, legislators ought to make amends by passing needed reforms next year.

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