Calvert County isn't the sort of place where smokers are demonized. Far from it. This Southern Maryland peninsula takes so much pride in its 400-year history of tobacco growing that a neon-green leaf of the plant is emblazoned on the county flag.
But some employees at the Prince Frederick courthouse are seething about the nicotine habit of one county resident. For the past decade, they say, Linda L. Kelley appears to have violated a state and county prohibition on smoking in the workplace.
How could a county employee evade the law for so long?
Without much difficulty, apparently, if you happen to run the county.
Kelley is one of the five elected county commissioners who serve as both the executive and legislative branch of Calvert's government. And in most cases, that means no one can tell Kelley (R-At Large) what to do.
"Who's going to take any action against her?" said Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown). "There are five bosses in this county, and she is one of them. No county employee is going to confront her and risk their job."
Kelley did not return calls to her home and cell phone seeking comment for this article.
Gail Bourdon, the county's personnel director, said county employees -- including the five salaried commissioners -- must follow a 1995 state law that prohibits smoking in the workplace. But Bourdon said she is not sure how the county would reprimand a worker who violated the policy.
"A complaint has never come to me about the no-smoking policy," she said.
And how could a worker file such a grievance?
"I've got to tell you, I'm not really sure," Bourdon said. "We don't have a specific procedure that says, 'If you want to complain about smoking, this is what you do.' "
William Grabau, senior industrial hygienist for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program, said his agency will investigate potential violations of the smoke-free workplace law, but generally only if a complaint is filed by someone who works in the office where the alleged violation took place.
Although the agency can fine private-sector offices as much as $7,000 for violations of the smoking ban, the statute does not allow for monetary penalties against smokers in government offices. "We would just write a letter to the county commissioners and tell them to comply with the law," Grabau said. The agency said no complaints have been filed against Kelley.
But Shaw said employees have privately complained to her that Kelley has cavalierly disregarded the law since she was elected commissioner in 1994.
The tobacco smell often hovers in front of the door to Kelley's windowless office. Earlier this year she casually smoked a cigarette at her desk during an interview with a Washington Post reporter. Shaw said one of her predecessors kept an air cleaner in her office to purify the fumes from Kelley's cigarettes.
"There is a double standard," Shaw said. "If someone else in the county were smoking in their office, would they get fired? Absolutely."
A few months ago courthouse employees noticed less smoke wafting out of Kelley's office. It turned out that she had purchased a smokeless ashtray, a battery-powered device that pulls cigarette smoke through a charcoal filter before it is released into the air, Shaw said.
"That's helped a lot," Shaw said. "Sometimes I can't even tell that someone is smoking in the office next to me."