A little friction as one governor exits, another arrives

With a written demand by Gov. M. Jodi Rell for their resignations, about 100 state employees have been reminded they serve at the discretion of the governor, a post that changes hands on Jan. 5.

Rell’s chief of staff got one. So did her press staff, commissioners, deputies, secretaries and assistants. The demand came by mail, an unwelcome reminder of impending unemployment before the holidays.

“Whatever the timing before now and Jan. 5, the letter had to go out,” said Lisa Moody, Rell’s chief of staff. “I got the same damn letter, no exceptions made.”

But the letter caught some of Gov.-elect Dannel P. Malloy’s circle off guard – and not just over the misspelling of his first name as Dannell.

“The governor-elect had no idea this type of letter was going to be sent,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a top adviser and a member of the transition team. “He’s under the impression that only commissioners would be asked to resign.”

Moody, who was Rell’s only chief off staff for her tenure of 6½ years as governor, called the letter routine and necessary, a step every administration takes on the way out the door.

“They’ll do it when they are done, whenever that is,” Moody said.

Moody said she told Malloy’s chief of staff, Timothy F. Bannon, the general content of the message and the intended recipients. But Malloy’s team became concerned after hearing from employees who interpreted the letter as a termination notice, not simply a reminder that the incoming governor has the power to retain or dismiss them.

“On behalf of the Malloy transition effort, we are committed to continuity of operations and would not be expecting people holding discretionary positions to disappear when Dan Malloy takes the oath of office,” said Bannon, who also is co-chair of the transition team.

Rell’s letter instructs the discretionary employees,  some of whom were hired by her predecessor, John G. Rowland, to submit to her a letter of resignation  by December 1.

“The actual date of your resignation need not be included in the letter, but you must indicate that your resignation will be effective upon acceptance by Governor Rell, or after January 5, 2011, by Governor Malloy when your successor has been appointed,” Rell wrote.

Rell’s three-paragraph letter closed with a message of thanks.

“It has been my privilege to work with all of you,” she said. “On behalf of the people of Connecticut, I thank you for your hard work and dedication and I hope our paths cross again many times in the future.”

Despite the reference to a possibility that Rell could accept the resignation, Moody said the incumbent governor has no intention of pushing her appointees out the door.

“The intention is not to have any gaps whatsoever,” Moody said. “This was just the opposite.”

Rell, a Republican who did not seek re-election, has told her commissioners in a conference call they are free to seek an appointment from Malloy, a Democrat, according to Moody.

By law, Moody said, commissioners cannot remain on the job beyond March 10, unless they are nominated by Malloy and confirmed by the General Assembly.

Other discretionary employees can remain as long as Malloy wants them.

“We want to have the benefit of their wisdom and experience as we evaluate personnel we may bring in to govern,” Bannon said.

Some holdovers, especially in the ranks of executive secretaries, could be asked to remain.

“There is no predisposition on the part of the Malloy administration to terminate people in these ranks on a wholesale basis,” Bannon said.

It is hard to say in Connecticut what is routine in a transition, as the last full one took place 16 tears ago as independent Lowell P. Weicker Jr. gave way to Rowland.

Under the threat of impeachment, Rowland resigned in the middle of his third term in July 2004. Rell’s departure will make the end a GOP blended administration that lasted 16 years.