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Bernstein ends community liaison program

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein has dismantled the agency’s longstanding community liaison program, laying off seven of the nine liaisons as well as two members of the support staff.

Bernstein was meeting individually with the affected employees Thursday afternoon, but his spokesman, who will inherit new duties as a result of the staff reduction, emphasized the move was about cost-cutting, not competence.

“By unfortunate necessity, as a result of budget constraints, we did, in fact, have to lay off nine people associated with the community liaison program,” said Mark Cheshire, the office’s director of communications and community relations. “I really want to make clear that this had nothing to do with performance. These people were widely respected. We really appreciated their service and wish them the best.”

The support staffers and the liaisons — non-lawyers who were assigned to individual police districts and attended community meetings in addition to meeting with victims and witnesses in district court — got the bad news Wednesday. But the program’s demise had been in the cards since at least last spring.

That was when Bernstein’s predecessor, Patricia C. Jessamy, learned City Hall wanted her to trim the community liaison positions from her fiscal year 2011 budget, which began July 1, 2010. Jessamy, who started the liaison program in 1999, threatened legal action, arguing she was independently elected and no one could dictate how she spent her agency’s budget.

Jessamy lost to Bernstein in the primary election in September 2010. She could not be reached Thursday afternoon, and spokesmen for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not return messages seeking comment.

“This is an issue we inherited,” Cheshire explained, adding it wouldn’t be “fiscally responsible” to retain the positions.

The proposed budget for the Office of the State’s Attorney for fiscal year 2012 is $25.06 million, which is another year-to-year drop in funding for the agency. The current fiscal year’s budget is $25.74 million, but that includes money that was never paid due to employee furloughs, according to Cheshire.

These are the first layoffs since Bernstein took office in January, Cheshire said. Turnover at the more than 400-employee office has been “typical … for an agency our size,” he said.

Jennifer Etheridge, who is in charge of the office’s community justice initiatives, declined to comment on the layoffs. Gerard B. Volatile, the agency’s chief district court prosecutor who helped supervise the program along with Etheridge, could not be reached Thursday.

Bernstein’s envisioned community prosecution model, in which prosecutors handle crime by region rather than type and thereby connect better with the citizenry, is still in the works and could help replace the liaison program. In the meantime, Cheshire, his deputy and one of the reassigned liaisons will handle the community relations work, while prosecutors, aided by law clerks, will do the in-court work.

“Everyone here is being called on to do more with less,” Cheshire said.