Some local and state officials are beginning to ask whether politics are creeping into efforts by Maryland's leading Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls to send manpower and supplies to New Orleans.
Early yesterday morning, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan dispatched Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, fire chief Thomas W. Carr Jr., Emergency Management Coordinator Gordon Aoyagi and their top deputies to the devastated region. The high-level delegation was scheduled to visit the 100 Montgomery fire fighters and police who have been in the area since last week. The officials are expected to return today.
The trip comes 10 days after Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Duncan's likely rival for the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor, sent a deputy mayor and 130 police, firefighters and public works officials to Louisiana.
In both cases, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said, the trips were undertaken outside of established rules.
MEMA Director John W. Droneburg III said localities are supposed to send relief only in response to a formal request. Baltimore's contingent left without one, although one was made after they departed, a MEMA spokesman said.
An O'Malley spokesman said the city was responding to a direct request from the mayor of Gretna, La.
Montgomery's top public safety officials were not requested, which Droneburg said could lead to problems.
"There are lots of liabilities or financial concerns, and we urge everyone not do that," said Droneburg, an appointee of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who likely will face one of the two Democrats next year.
"It's a little scary to think what would happen if all 3,000 counties sent delegations to New Orleans to offer help," said Jeff Welsh, a MEMA spokesman. "They wouldn't have time to do anything but meet with delegations."
Duncan's spokesman, David Weaver, said the local governments might have been more useful than the federal effort, widely denounced as slow and ineffective.
"You can bet if 3,000 counties responded to the Gulf Coast, they would do a better job than FEMA did," Weaver said.
Since the hurricane struck, more than 650 rescue personnel from Maryland have been deployed -- including rank-and-file Montgomery firefighters and police, through the formal federal process.
"We are doing what we have always done," Weaver said. "We have been involved in several disasters around the world: Oklahoma City, 9/11, other hurricanes."
Duncan also has committed the county to house up to 1,000 evacuees, ordered economic development officials to find them jobs, and is guaranteeing free tuition at Montgomery College for displaced students. He and O'Malley both have been vocal critics of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But some County Council members say Duncan's efforts are taking on a political odor, including the announcement that the delegation's departure from BWI was open to the media.
"I am not sure what is accomplished by sending all those people down there," said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), chairman of the council's Homeland Security Department.
"There is stuff to do here," said council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County). "To have a media alert of when they are leaving does elevate it from a support kind of thing to a public relations issue."
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), a frequent Duncan critic, disagreed, saying New Orleans needs all the help it can get.
"I'm confident they are needed," he said of the top officials.
Duncan plans to meet today with regional leaders, his second such meeting in a week, to criticize FEMA's response to the hurricane and discuss regional emergency response plans.
Last week, Duncan sent Ehrlich a letter demanding that he develop plans to evacuate large numbers of poor and elderly in the chance of a disaster.
"Our plan must place particular emphasis on bringing to safety those living in areas with high concentrations of poverty, such as Baltimore City," Duncan wrote.
Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, dismissed the letter as posturing.
Ehrlich also has made sure the media were aware of Maryland's relief efforts. On Monday, he summoned reporters to listen in on a conference call with the president of Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans, who was thanking him for his support.