It's to be expected that the first Republican administration in more than 30 years would want to make personnel changes in Maryland government.
And it surprises no one that the subsequent shift in power might bring some awkwardness and pain to the ranks of state staff members who serve at the will of the governor. But since a mysterious figure known as "the trench-coat man" began delivering the first pink slips to political appointees in January, the hiring and firing of employees at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has been intense.
The agency first hired two managers fired by the previous Democratic administration, then fired the state's longtime fisheries director, then hired a new legislative director who was fired in short order over concerns that he was pursuing his own agenda in the General Assembly. Within days, the department spokesman was gone, reassigned to another department because he allegedly fumbled explanations of the personnel tumult to the media.
Although each staff change has its own background and nuance, all point to a new day in Maryland, in which Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office is playing an integral part in installing rank-and-file and communications staff members in every state agency and longtime employees are ducking for cover, hoping to avoid the purge.
Rumors are rampant that the ax could fall on 30, 40 or 50 more employees in the Natural Resources Department before it is all over. And though department officials denied that many people would be fired, the heightened fear for their jobs has paralyzed many in the department and created an environment in which workers are afraid that one false step could mean their jobs.
"Nobody's doing anything that might attract any attention," said one longtime natural resources official who is a so-called at-will employee. "As a result, there's not a lot getting done."
Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., the appointments secretary whose office is overseeing efforts to place Ehrlich supporters in state jobs, did not return two phone calls for comment. Sources said the cuts in Natural Resources would likely not be as drastic as feared. Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said that given the budget crisis and Ehrlich's pledge to veto any new taxes, another round of cuts may come after the initial personnel placements are finished in the next several weeks if the state is to live within its means.
"We are not cutting positions yet, and if they are made, it will be as a last resort," Massoni said. "But I believe more personnel cuts will be made."
Massoni declined to discuss how many names the personnel office had forwarded to the department to be considered for jobs, but he said no pressure was exerted on agencies to put people in jobs for which they are not qualified.
DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks acknowledged that the dizzying changes in the department have produced a tense environment for many employees but said that under his watch, management of the state's natural resources will be guided by science, not politics.
So far, his short tenure has shown a willingness to weigh conservation and scientific interests along with those of business. Last month, at the department's request, the legislature approved new crab regulations that offered a slight reprieve to watermen struggling with declining harvests and that were generally supported by environmentalists The department also won legislative approval of a measure that allows Sunday hunting. Although some hunters and other groups had opposed the legislation, conservationists said it was needed to cull excessive deer populations.
Once the transition upheaval has settled, Frank said he plans to make Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts a priority through programs to reduce agricultural pollution; begin hunting of mute swans, which gobble acres of underwater grasses each year; and launch experimentation of Asian oysters as potential successors to ailing native oysters.
"In spite of all the efforts that have gone into it, the [bay cleanup] has been languishing," Franks said. "Personally, that's what motivates me to do this job at DNR. I thought this was the place I could make a difference."