So the governor kicked sand on an expert opinion

ROGER SIMON

February 05, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

At first glance, you might get the impression that Stephen Leatherman is an expert on beach erosion in Maryland.

You might get that impression because he did his University of Virginia Ph.D. thesis on the Maryland shore, has been studying that shore for 20 years, and is currently the director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at the University of Maryland at College Park.

But there is at least one person in this state who thinks he knows a lot more about beach erosion than Leatherman or any other Ph.D. or scientist.

And that person is Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

How can the governor, whose academic training was in law and who has spent most of his life in politics and administration, consider himself an expert on waves, soil, wind and weather?

Because he says he is, that's why. And if you don't like it, you can just shut your fat trap.

There, I think I have rendered official state policy accurately.

Under Governor Schaefer, some $44 million in state and federal funds has been poured into a sand dune to protect Ocean City.

In January, a storm washed away about 89 percent of that dune. Millions more will have to be spent to rebuild it. Further, the rebuilding process is an endless one, since storms and waves will never cease.

Recently, Professor Leatherman publicly questioned how good a job the Army Corps of Engineers had done in designing and overseeing the building of that Ocean City dune. He wondered why so much of it was washed away so easily by a storm that was not even a hurricane.

And he suggested that the state commission an independent analysis to check on the work.

Leatherman and his colleagues have just completed a study of beach projects throughout the United States, by the way. And Leatherman told me yesterday: "The Army Corps has a dreadful history with these projects. The corps has given us [at Ocean City] what I think are bogus numbers, and it wants us to swallow them whole."

Leatherman's statements are not quite as controversial as you might think. Saying the Army Corps of Engineers sometimes slips up is like saying the Pentagon sometimes wastes money.

Governor Schaefer, however, did not like Leatherman's statements one bit. Who was this scientist, this academic, this insect to disagree with the unquestioned pouring of millions of dollars into Ocean City?

And so Schaefer summoned Leatherman to Annapolis and he didn't bother being polite about it.

"One of his people called me and said that the governor had said: 'Get that professor here!' And so I went," Leatherman said.

Leatherman appeared before the Board of Public Works, which consists of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer. Leatherman is a soft-spoken man, and so when the governor began yelling at him he did not yell back.

Wait a second, I said. The governor actually yelled at you in public? Because you had a professional opinion he disagreed with?

"Yelled and screamed," Leatherman said.

Leatherman did not quail or quake under the gubernatorial onslaught. Nor did he change his mind. Because the dune at Ocean City is more than just a question of money to Leatherman. He believes that if it gives people a false sense of security, lives could be lost.

"Schaefer started telling me that this storm that had hit Ocean City in January was a hurricane," Leatherman said. "And I told him it was not a hurricane. That it was a winter nor'easter. That hurricanes have to have sustained wind velocities of 75 miles an hour and this storm only had sustained wind velocities of 52 miles an hour."

And?

"And I don't think he believed any of it," Leatherman said. "It was like: 'Don't confuse me with the facts.' "

Schaefer told Leatherman he knew all about the "hurricane" because he had personally visited and talked to homeowners in Snug Harbor, which had been hit hard by the storm.

"And I told him I had gone to Snug Harbor, too," Leatherman said, "and had seen it from the ground and the air and that if this storm really had been a hurricane, all those people he had talked to would have been dead."

Which the governor did not want to hear.

"He asked me to retract my [previous] statements in the press," Leatherman said. "He said, 'You were misquoted, weren't you?' And then he pointed out that the University of Maryland was not an independent agency."

But Leatherman refused to back down or retract his statements. Because what would be the sense -- or honesty -- of altering research every time a politician got upset with your conclusions?

"I told him the university may not be an independent agency, but that we do independent research," Leatherman said. "And I told him that integrity is part of what we are about. As well as being non-political."

And, in my opinion, Leatherman was acting in the same spirit as those professors who stood up to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Because Leatherman was not just standing up for saving taxpayer money, but for preserving academic freedom at the University of Maryland and elsewhere in this state.

Not that the governor saw it quite that way.

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