The union representing Montgomery County government workers has dispatched some of its best legal minds to answer a simple question: Should they be driving Mrs. Kramer?
For three years, the security guards who provide transportation for Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer have been sometimes called upon to drive his wife, Betty Mae Kramer, to the receptions, ceremonies and functions that are the lifeblood of public life.
Now, amid some complaints about her treatment of the drivers, union officials are wondering if it is an appropriate use of county workers' time or taxpayers' money.
"It is a very gray area . . . but on the surface it just doesn't sit well with us," said Gino Renne, vice president of Local 400, United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents the 24 workers who guard county offices and sometimes chauffeur the county executive.
Renne said the union is looking into whether the security guards in the county's Department of Facilities and Services are required to transport anyone other than an official county employee -- "specifically Mrs. Kramer."
Renne said the union's involvement was sparked by an incident in which disciplinary charges were being prepared against a security guard because a driver was late in picking up Betty Kramer and other complaints about her.
"It is our understanding she is very demanding," said Renne.
Kramer, a silver-haired woman with a reputation for graciousness, responded, "I can assure you that Betty Mae Kramer never, ever behaved in a way to mistreat anyone . . . I have always been very polite, very courteous to whoever drives."
"I know Betty Mae Kramer. She has treated the drivers very well," said County Executive Kramer, noting that "no one has complained to me. Not one person."
He said the charges were inspired by the approaching election, in which he is seeking a second term.
Kramer singled out Robert Denny, chairman of a grass-roots taxpayers group. Denny this week raised the issue of county workers driving Mrs. Kramer with reporters while also questioning some of her husband's financial disclosure statements.
Kramer contended that Denny is seeking to help the candidacy of former council aide Henry Bain, who is challenging Kramer in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. As for the union's comments, Kramer said that Renne is "very upset with the fact that his union didn't get what he told them he would get for them" in recent contract negotiations. Renne said the two issues are not related and he pointed out that he did not bring the issue to public attention.
The incident that attracted the union's interest occurred in January when the county threatened disciplinary action against a security officer who it said failed to make proper arrangements about picking up Betty Kramer. The county never brought charges against the employee.
That incident, plus another that occurred within a month, resulted in a revamping of the way the drivers are dispatched.
"Our record of customer service to this important customer is thus far pretty poor," Graham Norton, director of the Department of Facilities and Services wrote in a Jan. 9 memo. He instructed that "every security officer who potentially could be called on to drive for the Executive or Mrs. Kramer will be driven over the route to and from the house."
Norton pointed out that Kramer doesn't have full-time drivers. Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening has a protective detail of police officers who also drive him. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has an entourage of security officers, and Maryland state troopers serve as drivers for some of the state's top officials and Hilda Mae Snoops, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's longtime companion, who serves as the state's official hostess.
Sidney Kramer, who has the use of a county car, often drives himself. Betty Kramer said she only uses a county driver when she is meeting her husband at a county event and when they don't want to have two cars there.