The inaugural meeting of a legislative committee set up to probe the firing practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration came and went yesterday without any of the anticipated fireworks.
Democratic leaders pledged a fair review that would examine terminations not only by Ehrlich (R) but also by preceding Democratic administrations. Threats of a walkout by Republican members did not materialize. And senators and delegates from both parties went out of their way to refer to one another as "my friend" during a mostly cordial hour-long session.
"Today was a make-nice day, and I think it went well," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), one of four Republicans on the 12-member panel that includes House and Senate members.
Few in Annapolis expect the harmony to last.
The Special Committee on State Employee Rights and Protections was set up in June after Democrats complained that Ehrlich had reached deep into the bureaucracy and pushed out longtime workers to make room for politically connected replacements.
Ehrlich and his Republican allies accused lawmakers of planning a witch hunt and refusing to give the governor credit for the number of Democrats he has appointed since taking office in 2003.
"My expectations are as we get into our work . . . we're going to have rather heated discussions," Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), co-chairman of the special committee, said after yesterday's meeting.
In opening statements, however, both Middleton and Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the panel's other leader, urged bipartisan cooperation on an issue that is expected to dominate the fall agenda in Annapolis.
"Let me say as strongly as I can . . . there are no predetermined findings of fact," Jones said, adding that she recognizes "the sensitive nature of our charge and the implications this has for the work ahead of us."
Under a draft resolution circulated at yesterday's meeting, the panel will focus its efforts on determining whether current law provides state employees sufficient protections against "involuntary separations"; whether past and present administrations have acted fairly in dismissing employees; and whether new laws are needed for worker protection.
Among the issues that probably will be scrutinized is a 1996 law -- predating Ehrlich's arrival -- that increased the number of "at-will" employees who may be terminated by the governor or other high-ranking officials for virtually any reason. Nearly 7,000 such positions exist in state government. The administration says it has fired 284 workers since Ehrlich took office.
A broader legislative panel that includes the House's and Senate's presiding officers has scheduled a meeting this week to consider the special committee's proposed charge.
That panel also will decide whether to grant the special committee subpoena power, a prospect the Ehrlich administration frowns upon. Jones said yesterday that the committee would like to have the tool available but would hope that all witnesses would appear voluntarily.
"In fact, we hope we never have to issue a single subpoena," Jones said, adding that the power would be necessary to ensure access to some personnel documents.
Middleton said he expects that the special committee will meet at least weekly through January, when the legislature is scheduled to reconvene for its annual 90-day regular session.
Many details about what those meetings will entail remain to be worked out.
Ehrlich aides have suggested that Democrats might use the sessions to stage a parade of disgruntled former employees, some of whom have filed lawsuits against the administration, in an effort to embarrass the governor. Middleton said yesterday, however, that his preference would be not to hear from former employees involved in court actions.
Ehrlich's office offered a muted response to yesterday's proceedings, saying it was reviewing the special committee's draft resolution.
"It's a promising start," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "The committee is striking a cooperative tone. We hope it continues."