Top Prince George's County political leaders are once again actively seeking the removal of county health officer Dr. Donald K. Wallace from office.
They argue, in much the same way former County executive Winfield Kelly did two years ago, that Wallace has consistently failed to follow County Council and executive directives.
"We've reached a point where the status quo just can't continue," said Council Chairman Parris N. Glendening. "The council is pretty much agreed that the time has come for a change. And we expect the problem to be resolved very shortly."
There is little real evidence to support Glendening's view, however. Last week DeSalles Meyers, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said it is unlikely that the department will remove Wallace, who is also a deputy state health officer. As such, Wallace can be fired only by the state.
"Our position is that we have no reason to be dissatisfied with Dr. Wallace," said Meyers, administrative officer for the assistant secretary of health and mental hygiene. "If the county has any complaints, they should file them with the (state) department of personnel."
County officials have said they believe a formal complaint would be unsuccessful, because their opposition to Wallace is based on administrative and personaltiy conflicts rather than on charges of wrongdoing or negligence.
Last week, Dr. Benjamin White, assistant secretary of health and mental hygiene, traveled from Baltimore to try to calm the frustrated county officials. White reiterated the health department position on the controversy, and as he did two years ago, encouraged the officials to meet with Wallace to resolve their differences.
Because Wallace has said that he has no plans to resign and because the County Council voted unanimously last week to work with the executive to remove him, a major furor has erupted in Prince George's County.
"We don't plan to back down this time," said council vice-chairwoman Ann Landry Lombardi. "It just doesn't make sense to go on holding the county's health needs hostages because of the difficulties we've had in working with Dr. Wallace."
"He (Wallace) reads the letter of the law too conservatively," said former council chairman William B. Amonett. "You have to use common sense in interpreting health laws, just as you do with any other laws. You can't get away with beating the citizens over the head with the very laws that are designed to protect them."
Wallace believes, however, that most of the problems have come about because county officials want him to bend the rules.
"As far as I'm concerned, any special exception (to health laws) will have to be authorized by the (county) Board of Health," said Wallace.
"I see myself as a kind of health conscience for the county," he said. "If the laws aren't followed closely, the health and safety of the county's citizens could be at stake."
Wallace and the county politicans have rarely gotten along well. Since Wallace took office five years ago, they have squabbled over the location of health facilities, the continued operation of above-ground swimming pools, the regulation of restaurants, and the possible banning of shallow wells. Seldom have the disagreements been settled amicably.
It was this constant battling that led former County Executive Kelly to go to Baltimore in 1977 to ask the secretary of health and mental hygiene to fire Wallace. But the secretary asked Kelly to go back to Prince George's and make up with the doctor.
However, relations between the county executive and council and the health department chief remained chilly.
For a brief period last spring, it seemed that the politicians might win. Wallace's term as county health officer was to end in May and County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and Amonett put out the word that Wallace would be replaced.
At first Wallace said he thought Hogan had the right to appoint his own man and even agreed to help in the search.
Then several elected officials made statements that irritated Wallace. For example, one press report quoted Hogan as saying of Wallace's chances of winning back his job: ". . . if only Minnie and Mickey Mouse apply, obviously his chances would be good."
Feeling that his reputation was at stake, Wallace changed his mind and decided to hold on to his job.
Council chairman Glendening said last week that he and Hogan will meet with Wallace soon to discuss the health officer's future. To show that the county is not powerless, Amonett has hinted that some of the food and other environmental regulation responsibilites of the health department may be taken away unless Wallace leaves.
A speedy end to the conflict seems unlikely.
"The people up in Baltimore probably think you had a bunch of political shenanigans being played on the health department down here," said a well-placed County Council source. "They aren't going to do anything. They probably figure it'll blow over eventually."
Wallace has also stood his ground, and argues that county officials are dissatisfied with him because he refuses to play politics.
"I don't believe in team politics and I refuse to be a part of anyone's team," said Wallace. "The job of health officer is supposed to be non-partisan and that's the way I think we should keep it."
Another complication for county officials is the fact that they have been unable to find a likely replacement for Wallace.
"It's looks right now like Minnie and Mickey Mouse have been the only ones to apply for the job," said one council source.
Many believe that the great search has dragged on for nearly nine months because of the difficulty of the health officer's job, the salary paid and the skills required. At present, the health officer, who must be both an administrator and medical doctor, gets only about $40,000 per year.
It's almost impossible to find someone who can handle this job who is willing to work for that kind of money," said County Council administrator Samuel Wynkoop.