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December 18, 2006

Correcting the Record

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Writing a column here on a regular basis allows one the chance to occasionally smooth out some curves and twists in things others write and say, especially when it comes to politics.

Lately, my space has been taken up with responses to local opinion writers, and today is no exception. Former Frederick Mayor Paul Gordon, an historian and weekly opinion writer for The Gazette, weighed in with his thoughts on whether Gov. Bob Ehrlich deserves to be treated with respect by reporters and opinion columnists.

I respect Mr. Gordon, so I'll be more careful in my choice of words than I might otherwise be. His opinion is that the politically motivated hatchet job more commonly referred to as the Special Committee on Employee Rights provides the necessary justification for treating Bob Ehrlich with sanctioned disrespect.

I respectfully disagree. In fact, I find the premise is so outlandish as to stretch credulity.

Using the assumption that because the aforementioned committee says something is true just doesn't make it so. Admittedly, Joseph Steffan, a mid-level Ehrlich appointee involved in downsizing several agencies, conducted himself in manner unbecoming a public sector professional. (He was the guy with the grim reaper statuary.)

To suggest that - because of Mr. Steffan's behavior - we should be disrespectful to Bob Ehrlich assumes facts that are not in evidence, such as evidence that Governor Ehrlich ordered or sanctioned merit employees to be terminated solely because of their political affiliation.

Remember, we're not talking about high-level political appointees, as those folks are normally shown the door when an administration changes hands, especially to another political party (more so when it's been over 30 years). We're talking about people with some level of civil service protection.

Surely Mr. Gordon wouldn't argue the legacy of Gov. Parris Glendening is somehow diminished by the termination of well over 1,000 state employees following his election. In fact, Governor Glendening fired as many employees in one single agency as Governor Ehrlich did throughout the whole of state government. I don't recall Mr. Gordon's indignant outrage at that time, but maybe I just missed it!

The Special Committee granted so much credibility by Mr. Gordon has spent well over $1 million and two years time and has yet to produce any credible evidence that any merit employee was fired for political reasons. Be outraged, Mr. Gordon, but be fair in your outrage!

* * * * * * * * * *

The Frederick County Legislative Delegation functions as a working entity for the 90 day General Assembly session in Annapolis. The rest of the year is spent coordinating calendars and tracking down legislators.

The 90-day session places incredible demands on the members of the delegation, and the chairman serves as a sort of ringleader.

For the last four years, Del. Paul Stull (R., 4A) led our delegation ably and effectively. Paul is a well-respected advocate for our county and for the interests of Maryland's agricultural community.

Paul took his task to heart, building a structure for collaboration and the framework for the smooth operation of the delegation.

The duties of the chair include: maintaining minutes of the delegation meetings, organizing and chairing the weekly meeting, assigning and tracking county bills to each member of the delegation, following up on testimony, coordinating with the committee staff, coordinating visitors from back home, and communicating with the commissioners, advocacy groups, and the media.

Often, the delegation will get bogged down with controversial bills, and the chairman needs to know when to fish or cut bait. Those controversial bills that tie up the delegation also portend trouble in getting the bill through the proper committee and the General Assembly, and the chairman needs to know how to work the system to deal with those challenges.

Chairman Stull did an excellent job in all of those areas. So good, in fact, that if he had sought the chairman's gavel again, he likely would have had it without a challenge.

That was not the case, however. Last year, in the final year of the four year term, Paul indicated that he probably wouldn't seek the position in the 2007 session. Having served for four years as the vice chairman, I was naturally interested in the chairmanship, and made that interest clear. Again, I did so with the proviso that I would not directly challenge my friend Paul.

Here is where political trouble rears its ugly head. A reporter called to ask if I was interested in the job, and I made it clear that I was. In the course of the interview I was asked what I would do differently were I the chairman.

I told the reporter that unlike previous sessions, I would communicate directly with the commissioners, where in the past I had dealt with the county attorney. In my own words, I indicated that I would improve communication with the county commissioners.

Looking back, this was a tragically bad choice of words. Instead of making clear that I was referring to my own conduct, the implication was created that I would do a better job than my predecessor.

He rightfully took umbrage with the portrayal that he had not been effective, and that he had not developed a relationship with the commissioners. By all accounts, he certainly did!

A measure of success in any elected official is their ability to make a political point without alienating or offending those they'll need to depend on in the future.

Paul Stull has built a successful political career doing exactly that. I, on the other hand, apparently still have a long way to go!

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