September 22, 2004

With Sherry Freebery leading the charge, the Gordon administration turned back an effort to strip away most of its hiring and firing powers. In a measured presentation with decidedly vitriolic touches, she won the day while asserting that the executive branch of county government is conducting business forthrightly during the waning weeks of County Executive Tom Gordon's tenure.

"You don't get any more lame duck [of an] administration than we are," its second-ranking member told an emergency meeting of County Council.

"Don't drastically cripple this government," she pleaded in urging the lawmakers to stop meddling in the day-to-day functioning of its departments.

She alleged that an effort to wrest control of key executive powers under the guise of oversight and combating corruption was "highly politically motivated" and "directed [at] me to get more headlines."

Following her presentation and supporting testimony from several managers and other employees, Council, by three-to-four votes, rejected two ordinances which would have imposed a near-solid freeze on personnel moves and prohibited moving political appointees into jobs protected by the civil service merit system.

Presented as emergency measures, they required five affirmative votes to be enacted. Primarily sponsored by Council president Christopher Coons, the text of the freeze measure carried the names of four co-sponsors. The other one listed two co-sponsors. Prior to the meeting, however, it was said that they had the endorsement of all seven Council members.

In the end, only Coons and Councilmen Penrose Hollins and Robert Weiner voted affirmatively. Council members Patty Powell, William Tansey, Karen Venezky and Robert Woods lined up in opposition.

Tansey and Weiner are Republicans; the others are Democrats as are Gordon and Freebery. Coons is his party's candidate, running against Republican Christopher Castagno, to succeed Gordon as county executive, having defeated Freebery in the primary election.

Although the emergency ordinances, which would have been in effect for 60 days, failed, versions of the legislation, which would be in force until Gordon's successor takes office, remain before Council. They cannot be voted on, however, until Council receives a recommendation from the Human Resources Advisory Board, which evidently will next meet on or around Oct. 6. That could put the ordinances up for a vote at Council's regular session on Oct. 12.

Observers seemed to agree after the Council session on Sept. 21 that, barring an equally dramatic turn, their enactment is now unlikely.

Freebery in her testimony declared categorically that the Gordon administration is not violating nor abusing the merit system. After Patricia DiIenno, manager of the Human Resources Department, corroborated that, Coons complemented her for the department's strict compliance with previously enacted oversight legislation. "Human Resources will comply with whatever the law is," DiIenno said.

Freebery apparently knocked down the supporting prop for the emergency session when she described the recent hiring of Lynn Moroz to be insurance and control manager, a merit-system position that apparently continues the risk-management function he has been performing under a controversial outside contract.

"Lynn Moroz is not a political appointee," she said, explaining that he had been selected from among three qualified applicants in compliance with normal hiring procedures and offered the position last April. Although he accepted the job offer then, he had to delay moving into the position until Oct. 1 "while he shut down his business," she said.

DiIenno agreed that is how it happened. Coons, however, questioned why the arrangement did not come to light until it was listed among three personnel changes in a report submitted in compliance with the oversight legislation after the ordinance barring transfer of political appointees into the merit system had been introduced. Moroz's contract with the county has come under scrutiny since auditor Robert Hicks cited it as being irregular in April.

Freebery said the two other moves into merit-system position involve executive assistants "neither of whom I know." They were put into the appointive positions by department general managers as a temporary expedient to have the benefit of their services until there were regular vacancies for which to hire them, she said.

She also denied that the administration has fired or intends to fire anyone in retribution for opposition to its policies or similar reasons. She said two terminations for causes which have no such connotation are currently pending and are being handled in the usual way.

The most telling support for Freebery's testimony came from Chief David McAllister, who testified that the county police department "has 12 hiring and promotion processes underway" and said that "all personnel matters in the police department happen through me." He added that such activity "is every-day business" and taking away his authority in that regard would "cripple the department."

Freebery acknowledged, in effect, that personnel actions with some political ties remain part of the governmental function. She noted that the predecessor administration of County Executive Dennis Greenhouse shifted appointees into merit-system jobs in its closing days and asserted that being able to so retain the services of qualified people is legitimate. "When an administration comes to an end, [its] employees should be able to compete for jobs," she said.

Moreover, she added, "Council members have obtained hiring in this government." She singled out Weiner as an example and had started to cite examples when Weiner objected on a point of personal privilege and Coons cut her off on the grounds she had made her point without the need for personal accusations.

Earlier in the session, county attorney Timothy Mullaney challenged the legitimacy of presenting the proposed ordinances as emergency measures and the calling of the special meeting. "There is no evidence that any public emergency exists" and any action taken would be subject to a court challenge, he said. "That one individual is coming on on Oct. 1 ... doesn't constitute an emergency," he testified.

The proposed ordinances, he said, would have the effect of illegally discriminating against political appointees, whom he described as a recognizable "class of employees."

He said they also would violate state law in that they usurp legislative powers granted to the executive and amount to "de facto removal from office."

2004. All rights reserved.

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