- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — With a special committee’s inquiry into the Ehrlich administration’s firing practices stalled because of a dispute over access to records, the Senate chairman of the committee wants to create a task force to see whether the state needs to overhaul its personnel system to provide more protection for employees.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles Democrat, also is asking the General Assembly to restrict the role of the governor’s staff in deciding which workers in state agencies will be hired and fired.

Those were among bills introduced last week by Mr. Middleton as a result of the work of the Special Committee on State Employees Rights and Protections.

The committee, which began hearings in August, has not issued a report or made any decisions.

It was set up to look into charges by some Democrats that state employees who did not hold political jobs in state government were fired to make way for replacements loyal to the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

Although Democrats say the governor has the right to fill key management positions with his people, they have questioned the extent of the firings and the way they were handled. Some workers said they were dismissed without notice and without cause, and were escorted from their offices by armed guards.

Republicans have criticized the inquiry as a political witch hunt designed to embarrass the Ehrlich administration, saying the complaints have come from disgruntled former employees.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday that the bills proposed by Mr. Middleton are “the result of 10 months of wasted time and money on the part of the personnel committee.”

“They wasted half a million dollars to tell us, in some respect, to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.

Mr. Middleton countered: “I don’t think it has been a waste of time,” he said.

The hearings have shown that there are a lot of questions about the status of thousands of “at-will” employees who can be fired at any time without cause and whether they need more protection under the law, Mr. Middleton said.

One of his bills is directed at the governor’s appointments secretary, who is responsible for screening candidates for jobs on the governor’s staff.

That bill would prohibit anyone on the governor’s staff from playing a role in making appointments in the state agencies.

The committee has heard testimony from former employees who worked for Cabinet secretaries that they were told by their superiors that the word to fire them had come directly from members of the governor’s staff.

Mr. Middleton also wants the legislature to create a task force to see whether laws need to be changed to “strike a better balance between the need to provide flexibility in hiring and terminating employees and maintaining the dignity, worth and morale of the state’s work force.”

The committee has not had a meeting since January. Mr. Middleton blamed the governor’s office for this, saying Ehrlich aides are not providing documents the committee needs to complete its work.

Mr. Fawell denied that the administration is withholding records.

“We have provided literally thousands of pages of documents,” he said. “This would be a funny joke if it wasn’t at the expense of the taxpayers.”

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