Questions Cloud County Layoff Decision

SNOW HILL – Confusion reigned Tuesday afternoon when the Worcester County Commissioners were told they should confirm their vote to layoff 11 people and consolidate three county departments into one, with one previous supporter of the move emphatically changing her mind.

During the County Commissioners’ regular meeting, a visibly irritated Sonny Bloxom, Worcester County attorney, instructed the commissioners to reaffirm the vote they took in a closed session the previous week on the elimination of 11 positions and the consolidation of three departments into one.  

“All you’re doing is re-confirming the action you took in closed session,” said Bloxom.

“What if you’ve changed your mind?” asked County Commissioner President Louise Gulyas, who voted for the consolidation and layoffs last week, along with Commissioner Bud Church, who made the motion, Commissioner Bobby Cowger and Commissioner Jim Purnell.

“We did what we did,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs, who voted against the consolidation and layoffs, along with Commissioners Linda Busick and Virgil Shockley.

However, she along with Church, Cowger and Purnell voted to confirm the vote with Shockley, Gulyas and Busick voting against.

The vote was simply to certify to the public that the May 26 vote had been taken, Bloxom emphasized. It was not a re-take of last week’s vote.

The closed session vote has become the focus of controversy since last week. Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), citing concerns over the legality of the discussion and vote on consolidating county departments, plans to file a formal complaint with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board.

Kathy Phillips, Coastkeeper and executive director of ACT, has said she is worried that the elimination of those inspectors and the one planning employee would streamline permits for developers and reduce county oversight of environmental protection regulations.

According to Bloxom, people don’t understand that the decision was made in closed session because re-organization of staff falls under the commissioners’ administrative responsibilities.

Bloxom acknowledged that the commissioners were not legally required to discuss the consolidation of the three departments in private.  “You could have done it in open session if you wanted to,” said Bloxom.

Once the discussion concerns the elimination of jobs, and employee names are discussed, the matter must be done in a closed session. If the county had hundreds of employees, the discussion eliminating certain positions would not reveal the actual employee in question, but the county staff is too small for people not to be able to guess whose job would be eliminated, Bloxom said.

At this point in the discussion, which was not scheduled on the agenda, Church jumped in with a motion to adjourn. There was no second and the discussion continued without pause.

“It’s important you do this from a legal standpoint so nobody could raise a stink,” said Bloxom.

The confirming vote had been taken, Church pointed out. The reasoning behind the confirming vote was not clear, said Busick.

“I don’t get it,” said Gulyas.

“The first vote you took stands,” said Bloxom, referring to the closed session vote.

While the vote was reconfirmed, none of the discussion points from the closed session were reiterated.

“I’ll make a motion we undo what we did,” said Busick.

The decision last week, she said, was not based on factual information. “It was rushed through,” she said.

No one waited to see if the motion was seconded, with conversation continuing unabated.

Administrator Gerry Mason suggested the commissioners could rescind their closed session vote.

Only the commissioners who voted for the motion could bring it back for another vote, Church reminded his colleagues. Since Gulyas, the only ‘yes’ vote to change her mind, is president of the commissioners, she cannot make a motion, he said.

“Resign, Louise,” said Busick.

Church once again made a quick motion to adjourn. No second emerged.

“I want to rehire these people,” said Busick.

“If you could justify work for them, they’re doing one-third of the work,” said Cowger.

“This wasn’t done fairly. It wasn’t done across the board. Three departments were targeted,” said Busick.

At this point, Gulyas banged the gavel for order.

“I admire what you’re trying to do,” Gulyas said to Busick. “I don’t know what our options are right now.”

Gulyas said she would like to look at rehiring the eliminated employees.

Shockley suggested that the commissioners make a commitment to help the laid off workers find employment with the county if a job matching their skills opened up. At this point, some county employees still have the option of taking early retirement, and there could be more takers than have already agreed to it. If qualified, those people should get first choice, he said.

Cowger pointed out that there’s a hiring freeze.

Shockley later pointed out that some vacated positions would have to filled.

Gulyas suggested that a work session on the consolidation and layoffs could be held in the future.