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February 13, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 6

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It was the week after the great marriage debate, and Annapolis still stood. Contrary to media reports, the Earth did not split open, and the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth isn’t because of same sex marriage, it’s over a lack of parking.

This week, I thought I’d spend a little time on another simmering controversy.

The Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections has been feverishly working to investigate whether or not employee rights have been violated during the change of gubernatorial administrations. Further, the committee is also looking at what the appropriate number of “at will” positions in state government should be.

This whole process is a politically motivated mess, from beginning to end. The Republicans claim any examination is an attempt to embarrass Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich; while the Democrats argue that they are motivated not by politics, but by the need to protect career civil servants from political influence.

Both sides are counting on the electorate’s lack of sophistication so as to not see the truth. So what is the truth?

There are over 6,000 jobs that are presently classified as “at will,” serving at the pleasure of the governor. About 284 people were let go by the Ehrlich Administration. That’s 284 out of 6,000.

In spite of protests to the contrary, these people were let go for political reasons. Just like what is now transpiring in the City of Frederick, political change brings about employment change.

This is especially true for more senior-level positions, those that deal with policy and executive issues in a state agency. When Republicans say that politics were not a part of the decision, they’re avoiding reality.

Conversely, Democrats are focused on damaging Governor Ehrlich’s political reputation, not advocating for career employees. Just look at the truth, not the rhetoric. This special committee has been meeting for months and has spent over $500,000.

The special committee has a high-priced attorney under retainer, and the costs continue to escalate. So, what have we gotten in exchange for all this?

The committee has produced absolutely nothing but partisan rancor and election-year political posturing. There has not been a single witness that has testified that any low level, career civil servant was terminated for political reasons.

The witnesses and complainants so far have been tied to the former administration, in either senior policy roles or in purely political positions. There is not a single shred of credible evidence that anyone not determined to be a legitimate at-will employee was terminated because of politics.

The counsel to the governor, Jervis Finney, and the special committee counsel are shooting letters back and forth, spending a lot of time and mental energy discrediting the positions of the other.

The only beneficiaries of this tit for tat are the Annapolis reporters for the BS (Baltimore’s Sun) and TP (my shorthand for The Washington Post).

The Democrats were fearful that their weekly press release stream might dry up if the special committee’s work wrapped up before session ended. Magically, the special committee’s work was extended through March.

Local Frederick Del. Galen Clagett (D., 3-A) has re-introduced his bill to shift almost all at-will positions into the career service. His logic is that this will protect these people from political intervention. He has been quoted saying his bill is not geared at the Ehrlich Administration, but is more about doing what’s right for state workers.

Maybe true, maybe not. Regardless, he does serve on this special committee. Also, he was quoted last year attacking the hiring practices of the Ehrlich Administration. If his motivation is simply to protect career workers, he deserves some credit.

Why would we offer blanket civil service protections, anyway? Maybe many of these jobs should just be eliminated, not granted the kind of broad career employment protections that regular start workers enjoy.

One can assume that the lack of a credible witness to confirm the initial accusation is part of the reason for the extension. Imagine how partisan and petty the Democrats would appear if they cannot produce a single witness that can verify the claim they made last year that the Ehrlich Administration was involved in a systematic program of political retribution against low-level career state employees.


Also this week, TP ran an article celebrating the fact that Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) has evolved into a master “tactician.” The article focused on his handling of the same sex marriage bill.

The press reflects the same biases and preferences of the legislature. While the TP and BS represent the Speaker’s actions as strategic and heroic, The Washington Times focuses more on GOP criticism and frustration.

In the BS and TP, he’s a tactician. In the Times, he’s a tyrant. In truth, he’s both! * * * * * * * * * * This week saw the passing of an important Merlin (the name of our State as spoken in Bawl’mer) milestone.

Comptroller/Governor/Mayor/City Councilman William Donald Schaefer celebrated his 50th year as a public servant last Wednesday. Work in the House came to a sudden halt in order to watch a 10-minute video tribute to our state comptroller, and Speaker Busch presented him with a plaque and certificate honoring his service.

Speaker Busch asked those members under age 50 to stand (outing those who were trying to hide their age), and made the point that Comptroller Schaefer was entering his first City Council term before those of us who stood were born.

Comptroller Schaefer is a controversial figure in Maryland politics, duh! He has been outspoken about illegal immigration and language barriers. This endears him (NOT) to people like Del. Victor Ramirez (D., PG) and Anna Sol Gutierrez (D., Montgomery), as well as other liberal members.

He is outspoken in his support of the work of the Ehrlich Administration, which endears him (NOT) to the entire Democratic Caucus, and he is quick to criticize Baltimore Mayor (and gubernatorial candidate) Martin O’Malley, endearing him (NOT) to those Democrats who have already announced their support of Mayor O’Malley.

Sitting midway back in the House Chamber is Del. Peter Franchot (D., Montgomery), who has already announced his intention to unseat Comptroller Schaefer in a Democrat primary. Delegate Franchot had a pained, uncomfortable look on his face throughout the recognition ceremony.

The fact is that the comptroller deserves a great deal of credit for his efforts to shape public policy in our state. His passion for improving the lives of regular Maryland citizens appears to guide his every move, not something that most delegates can claim.

Speaker Busch stood next to the comptroller, pointed at him, and suggested that younger members of the legislature would do well to follow Schaefer’s example. I agree!

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