Bill weighs vets' service

Clash in Arundel over giving hiring preference to those serving in wartime

November 03, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

An Anne Arundel County councilman's push to give veterans who served during wartime preferential treatment for county jobs has sparked a clash with the county executive about limits on eligibility and the available positions.

The idea being championed by Democratic Councilman Jamie Benoit, a retired Army lieutenant, would give specific types of veterans preference over those who served during peacetime and did not deploy for specific operations.

County Executive John R. Leopold, however, wants to alter Benoit's bill to open the hiring preference to anyone who served honorably in the armed forces and reduce the categories of jobs to which it would apply.

The disagreement, which will come to a head at a public hearing on Monday night, has raised concerns among veterans about the fairness of putting one veteran ahead of another.

"It would be more equitable not to create different classes of military veterans," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington. "You should not reward one veteran over another. A veteran is a veteran is a veteran."

Benoit said the intent of his measure is to aid some of the tens of thousands of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Benoit's bill would grant an unspecified preference to veterans who served in a time of war in any capacity and those with a service-related disabilities, and would break a tie between equally qualified candidates competing for most openings in the county's 4,200-person work force. The provision also includes veterans who served during peacetime but deployed in support of a specific military operation.

Benoit, an attorney, said the bill would pay respect to the broad military presence in Anne Arundel, particularly Fort Meade and the Naval Academy.

According to the Census Bureau, 53,870 veterans live in the county.

Benoit said he intentionally excluded veterans, such as himself, who did not face combat.

"You can frustrate the purpose of the bill if you make too many people eligible," he said.

Baltimore and Harford counties, along with the state and federal governments, apply a veterans preference. Benoit's bill is designed to mirror federal hiring guidelines.

Leopold, a Republican, said he plans to submit an amendment that would grant preference to all veterans, regardless of whether they served in a time of war. That provision would conform with preference rules for hiring most state government employees. The state gives more consideration for disabled veterans, but wartime and nonwartime veterans are treated equally.

He criticized the Benoit bill for failing to include the point, or credit, mechanism used by other governments when offering the hiring preference. He said the bill's "lack of substance and structure" would expose the county to lawsuits and ultimately prove unhelpful to veterans.

Leopold said it amounted to "bamboo legislation - shiny bright on the outside and hollow on the inside."

His amendment would also limit the hiring preference to public safety positions, such as police and detention officers, firefighters and sheriff's deputies, because those positions require applicants to take a standardized test. His revision, he said, would make it "administratively feasible and practicable to apply the points." Leopold added that his amendment will be crafted to make an accommodation for disabled veterans.

Benoit called Leopold's proposed changes "almost elitist" because they would exclude veterans from a host of positions.

"I would like the administration to articulate the number of jobs that would be available to a sergeant who lost both of his legs in a mortar attack in Iraq," Benoit said. "If they can show me a meaningful number of jobs, I will be deeply impressed."

Arthur Cooper, president of the Retired Enlisted Association, Chapter 24, at Fort Meade, said that although he doesn't believe veterans should be split into categories, he was glad to see the county taking up the issue "because [with] a lot of the guys and ladies who have served, once they get back, there's nothing really offered to them."

The state unemployment rate for veterans has been on par or lower than the rate nationwide. But younger veterans have faced a decidedly more difficult job climate. The unemployment rate for veterans ages 20 to 24 was 10.4 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That marked the lowest rate since 2001.

Patric Enright, a Vietnam veteran and a supporter of Benoit's bill, requested the veterans preference for an analyst position at the CIA after retiring as a Marine captain. He got the job and worked there for 28 years, but he's uncertain whether the preference made a difference in his hiring.

Enright said military personnel bring valuable skills to the workplace and that hiring preferences acknowledge that.

"As a taxpayer, I've paid for a uniform, beans, bullets and bandages, the whole nine yards," said Enright, a Gambrills resident. "A veteran who serves honorably and comes out of the service with or without combat experience brings an investment for that expense, skills such as teamwork, unit loyalty and self-discipline. There's value added."

Sun reporters Larry Carson and Arin Gencer contributed to this article.

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