Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler overstepped his authority when firing a veteran employee at the state's utility regulatory agency, a Circuit Court judge has ruled.
The court decision, handed down in Baltimore on Wednesday, means Schisler will have to reinstate former external relations manager Chrys Wilson. Wilson was one of five high-ranking staffers dismissed in April over the strong objections of three other commissioners. Several top state political leaders decried the firings as politically motivated.
Schisler, a Republican and former state delegate, was appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). At the time, the commission's other members were Democrats, appointed by Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D).
"The ruling today recognized that the Public Service Commission is a democracy and not a dictatorship," said Wilson's attorney, Cary J. Hansel.
Chief Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan found fault with two aspects of Schisler's decision. First, Schisler lacked authority to fire the employees without the consent of the other four commissioners, the judge ruled. And second, when Schisler gave Wilson the chance to appeal her termination, she was told that he would rule on the appeal himself.
"The judge held that forcing her to argue her appeal to him violated her due process rights," Hansel said.
Schisler was traveling yesterday and did not return a message left at his office. Susan Stevens Miller, the commission's general counsel, said she was disappointed with the judge's decision. She said commissioners have not met to decide whether to appeal or to accept the decision and reinstate Wilson.
In April, when Schisler made the decision to clean house at the agency, House and Senate Democrats uniformly denounced the move. Yesterday, Maryland Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said he was relieved that the court stepped in to reverse Schisler.
"I think what he did was obviously ill-advised and ill-conceived, and I'm very glad the judge said it was illegal," Frosh said. "I don't know where [Schisler] got the impression that he had the ability to haul off and fire these employees."
Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, one of those who objected to Schisler's actions, said he believes the court sent an unambiguous message to the chairman.
"Clearly what the court is saying is that each commissioner is required by law to participate in these decisions," Curran said. "That's what I believed all along."
The four other fired employees -- the agency's chief hearing examiner, chief engineer, director of accounting investigations and public information officer -- are awaiting separate rulings in their court challenges.