October 7, 2004

Assured by Joseph Freebery, general manager of the Department of Special Services, that "there has been no political manipulation of the merit system," the Human Resources Advisory Board recommended that County Council not enact ordinances which would freeze personnel moves and block hiring of appointees into protected positions until the Gordon administration leaves office.

The unanimous recommendation from the three-member panel is not binding and Council president Christopher Coons, primary sponsor of the proposed legislation, said after the board meeting on Oct. 6 that he will continue to push for enactment of both proposed ordinances. They are co-sponsored by the other six Council members, but, although it is rarely done, members can vote against measures that they sponsor.

When nearly identical measures, which would have expired after 60 days, came before Council on an emergency basis on Sept. 21, they were rejected by four-to-three votes. The currently pending ones would be in force until Jan. 5, 2005. Coons said he will bring them up for a vote when Council next meets on Oct. 12.

Freebery told the advisory board that he frequently has received recommendations from a variety of people in county government that he "take a look at" job candidates they considered highly qualified, but he insisted that "nobody ever told me to hire someone."

A seemingly skeptical board chairman Richard Bell pressed Freebery to admit that "a candidate with political connections" would have an advantage "over the guy on the street" in landing a job. However, the general manager stuck to his contention that the law intended to assure everyone who is qualified equal opportunity is scrupulously observed.

He was the only member of county government's top management to testify before the board although the meeting was attended by the entire cadre of general managers. Chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery, who was primarily responsible for Council's having rejected the emergency ordinances, was not there. Sherry Freebery is Joseph Freebery's sister.

Patricia DiIenno, manager of the Human Resources Department, testified that there presently are four of the approximately 40 employees who would be affected by the proposed ban on hiring appointees on lists of eligible candidates for merit-system jobs. They are being "treated like everybody else" in the hiring process, she said. In the normal course, more applicants would be expected in during the final three moths of the administration, she said.

She said the only pending termination involves a police officer being fired for cause.

County government has about 1,600 employees.

Coons said he brought the proposed legislation before Council in response to "credible allegations of inappropriate political pressure" being exerted in connection with job actions. DiIenno categorically denied that is happening.

Marge Ellwein, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge which represents county officers, endorsed the proposed ordinances as a way to stop "what is going on right now" involving improper personnel movers. In inordinate number of job openings have been posted in recent weeks, she testified.

County auditor Robert Hicks said that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of job actions reported under terms of earlier legislation designed to monitor the administration since primary elections were held on Sept. 11. Sherry Freebery was defeated then by Coons in a bid for the Democratic nomination to run in the general election to succeed County Executive Tom Gordon, who is ineligible to be re-elected. That assures that there will be a change in administration come January.

It was agreed that moving political appointees to protected merit-system jobs is common practice throughout governments up to an including the federal level when administrations change. The rationale is that such moves enable the bureaucracy to retain the services of qualified experienced people.

Coons acknowledged that "there is no reason why that is inappropriate," but said there are "things that distinguish as matters of broad concern this administration." He cited the "very difficult legal and political environment [in which] the administration finds itself." That referred to the fact that both Gordon and Sherry Freebery, its top-ranking officials, are under federal indictment alleging corruption.

Joseph Freebery said there is a great difference between indictment and conviction of a crime. He said that indictment alone would not be cause for disqualifying someone from holding or being hired into a government job. "You and I could be indicted [at] any time; that doesn't mean we're guilty of anything," he said, addressing that remark to Coons.

DiIenno said there is no basis for reputed rumors that Gordon or Sherry Freebery have applied for county jobs.

Coons said that, under present circumstances, "it is prudent to take temporary steps that do no permanent harm" to prevent abuse. Bell said the main effect of doing so would be to counter "a public perception" that untoward things are happening.

Joseph Freebery said that disqualifying political appointees from consideration for professional jobs amounts to "discrimination against a class of people" and violates anti-discrimination laws.

Sally Goldsborough testified that barring her from moving from an appointive position as executive secretary to a merit-system job would prevent her from qualifying for full retirement benefits although she will be just 40 days away from having 30 years service in county government when the administration changes. She said she agreed to move from her previous merit-system job to the appointive job with the assurance that she could return and get a full pension.

Freebery said there is a specific provision in the merit-system law covering such moves. "To deny these people the right to return to the merit system would violate the merit system," he said.

Coons said there would be nothing to prevent Goldsborough from applying for and, based on her experience and qualifications, being hired into a county job after Jan. 5. She said going through the process would likely take several months, during which she would be unemployed.

Moving from a merit-system position to an appointive one is a not an uncommon practice because the appointive jobs usually command higher pay, more perquisites and greater prestige. On the other hand, appointees serve at the pleasure of the county executive and can be summarily fired. It is necessary to go through a show-cause process to terminate a merit-system employee after a year's probation. While on probation the employee can be more easily dismissed for cause or because of substandard performance.

It was explained that applicants for merit-system jobs are tested and, if they pass muster, placed on an eligibility list in the order of their scores. General managers are entitled to select from among the top five names on the list the person to be hired. Generally speaking, the tests are written ones for jobs below the middle-management level and oral interviews before three persons at that level and above.

Coons said it was not his intention to stymie the everyday functioning of county government. Bell noted that those workings would continue with appointees remaining in position during the time left before the administration changes. The new executive can then reappoint incumbents or replace them.

Bell suggested that, if restrictions are desirable during the closing days of the current administration, consideration be given to a permanent law applying to future transitions. Coons agreed that that might be a good idea.

Considering the apparent agreement of Bell and Coons on several points and Bell's rather aggressive questioning of Freebery and DiIenno, the unanimity of the three board members in reaching the final decision was something of a surprise.

Only Stephen Caassarino spoke during a brief discussion after the testimony, saying that he was going to vote against a favorable recommendation because he doesn't like enactment of laws to address specific situations. Edward O'Donnell is the other member of the board.

2004. All rights reserved.

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