Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark J. Belton on Monday offered lawmakers no explanation for why he fired the longtime manager of the state’s crab program days after watermen complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about the employee.
Belton repeatedly declined to justify the dismissal during a joint hearing with the House and Senate environmental committees, as Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the termination of Brenda Davis, a 28-year state employee, was politically motivated.
“Isn’t it true that since you couldn’t give these watermen what they wanted by changing crab policy, you gave them something else — Brenda Davis’s job?” asked Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s).
Belton, who said he could not comment on personnel matters, said that critics were “trying to make connections where there are none” and that Hogan (R) had nothing to do with the dismissal. “It was my decision, and my decision alone,” he said.
Davis was fired Feb. 21, about one week after Hogan met with Dorchester County watermen who had been pressing the DNR to change its regulations to allow them to catch smaller crabs in late summer. The department, using annual crab-population surveys and scientific analysis, determined that the change would run counter to its goal of ensuring sustainable harvests.
Davis, who made policy recommendations but did not have final say over regulations, was six years away from retirement and saving money to send two high school children to college when she was terminated.
“The only information I got was that my services were no longer needed,” she said.
The Bay Journal first reported the dismissal last month.
Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Hogan’s deputy chief of staff, confirmed that the governor met with Dorcester County watermen but declined to discuss specifics.
Davis said the DNR tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Dorchester watermen, proposing that they could catch smaller crabs in exchange for a shorter season. She said the watermen were not interested in those options and that they “made it no secret that they thought that I was difficult to work with.”
Republican lawmakers noted that Davis was an at-will employee, meaning she could be dismissed for any reason and was not covered by civil-service protections that apply to much of the state’s rank-and-file workforce.
“At-will is at-will — I don’t see anything wrong here,” said Del. Jerry Clark (R-Calvert).
Several Republicans noted that past administrations have each dismissed scores of at-will personnel, but Davis said most of those employees are senior officials, such as deputy secretaries, rather than program managers.
Administration officials said former governor Martin O’Malley’s administration terminated five at-will management employees at DNR during his first two years in office, whereas the Hogan administration removed four during its first two years.
Two fishing industry officials testified on behalf of Davis at the hearing, including Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association, and Bill Rice, a Charles County crabber and chairman of DNR’s Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission.
Dean described Davis as “nothing short of professional and accommodating,” saying she was open-minded and made herself available to discuss fishing issues.
“I may not have always liked or agreed with her assessments, but I knew that she was driven by the future of the crab,” he said.
Davis said her termination has already had a discouraging impact on other program managers throughout state government, saying that “people are actually asking to be demoted so they’re no longer in an at-will position.”