Decision Questionable But Process Disturbing

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The County Commissioners have fired 11 employees in the Comprehensive Planning, Development Review and Permitting and Environmental Programs departments. The idea is to cut “dead weight” in these slow economic and development times and merge the three departments, returning essentially to the way the county operated prior to the most recent real estate boom earlier in the decade.

It’s always disheartening to hear of employees being moved to the unemployment rolls, but we have more of an issue with the manner in which this whole consolidation was handled than the layoffs. The commissioners put everyone, especially those critical of the way they seem to covertly operate, on alert last week when they abruptly and seemingly arbitrarily went into a closed session to discuss policy in the middle of a public meeting. Sure, the commissioners said it was under the broad guise of personnel and salary matters, but that lame excuse is growing old. It’s a general concept that’s abused by government officials everywhere, and it’s not right.

It’s more than likely true some of the eliminated positions may have not had enough work to justify their jobs any longer. If that’s the case, some changes in structure may have been needed and maybe even the dismissal of the staff. Regardless of that disputable conclusion, we don’t think there’s any question this process was flawed from the beginning to the end, which came last Friday, three days after the private vote, for these 11 employees.

When asked this week if the consolidation was a plan he hatched, County Commissioner Bud Church, who made the motion for a vote on the matter, was quick to point out this move was brought to the board by the county’s chief executive officer, Gerry Mason. According to Church, when the three-department merge was first broached, he knew it would be controversial and that accusations would fly. However, Church felt it was the right “business” thing to do, opening himself up to criticism by the conservation community.

In this case, it’s the way the firings were carried out that’s launched conspiracy theories, a lot of which have to do with the so-called pro-development commissioners running the show in Snow Hill these days. The idea being floated by opponents to this move is once development heats up again in a few years there will be less staff to make sure all of the building and environmental code rules are being followed closely. Church said that’s not the goal of this contentious move. He said there were no ulterior motives. “If Bud Church is guilty of anything, it’s not making it clear that other departments had to be included in this downsizing,” he said this week.

Clearly, no matter how this decision is spun, the county has taken a philosophical turn. That fact is tweaked differently depending on who is speaking. For instance, if you talk with Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) Executive Director Kathy Phillips, who is also the Assateague Coastkeeper, she makes a case these positions, at least one of which was funded through a state grant, are critical to keep developers honest and ensure regulations are followed. She said it’s not about money and points to the bizarre timing, one month before the end of the fiscal year and after the budget had been balanced, as evidence. If you speak with Church, it’s a result of the economic times and a drastic drop in workload. He said there is no Centex or Toll Brothers developing hundreds of homes in the county right now, eliminating the need for the extra staff.

The philosophical and practical reasons behind this move could be debated for hours. It’s a controversial decision with political ramifications. Time will only tell if the naysayers are right and there are ulterior motivations for this serious change in government structure. However, what’s not debatable is the improper way the entire plan was brought to the public briefly, decided upon in a closed meeting and then discussed again publicly in a confusing and hectic manner.

Was last week’s vote and discussion a violation of state law governing open meetings? ACT is going to find out through a formal challenge to the state. Even if the county is found to have acted improperly, all officials will have to do is hold a public vote. That’s fine by us. The 4-3 vote may be the same or it may flop in the other direction. Regardless, the employees have already been fired and may not even return if the vote is different, but it may be a way to correct a process that should have been handled in a more open and detailed manner from the beginning.

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