Panel to draft ideas to Ehrlich

Bay coordinator post, unified police agencies among suggestions

November 07, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

An overhaul of Maryland government should result in a high-level officer to coordinate Chesapeake Bay restoration programs, and the unification of small and scattered police departments into statewide units, according to preliminary recommendations discussed yesterday by an efficiency commission.

State operations also could be improved if the functions of the Maryland Stadium Authority were expanded to include the construction of public schools, said members of the Commission on the Structure and Efficiency of State Government, appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Those ideas and others were raised yesterday during one of the last meetings of the commission, headed by former Gov. Marvin Mandel. The commission is due to release a draft report Monday, followed by a public hearing later in the week, before making final recommendations to Ehrlich early next month.

The governor could accept or reject any of the ideas, and those he favors may need legislation to implement, said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor.

"There is no prerequisite to say he has to accept all of the recommendations, because they are just that - recommendations," DeLeaver said.

Yesterday's meeting was unadvertised, and committee members read their recommendations from binders. Paper copies were not available later in the day, continuing the fog of secrecy under which the panel has operated for weeks.

"This is just a draft report, subject to the will of this commission," Mandel said.

Ehrlich created the commission in August, fulfilling a campaign pledge to seek ways to make government more efficient. Before and shortly after his election, the governor said that a leaner government would cost less money and help eliminate a gap between spending and revenues - projected at more than $700 million next year.

But when he created the panel, Ehrlich altered his message, and said cost savings were not a goal. There was no estimate available yesterday for how much - if anything - the alterations under consideration might save.

The commission's environmental subgroup has recommended the appointment of a bay coordinator to oversee agencies that work on the Chesapeake, making up a Bay Cabinet. Such a structure existed under then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, but faded under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"There is supposed to be one. This would reinforce it and expand it a little, maybe give it a little more power," said Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader from Garrett County who serves on the panel. "It would ... help coordinate the effort and get a bigger bang for the buck."

The recommendation follows a suggestion made by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the Mandel commission.

"We feel like it's needed to bring the highest possible attention to the governor, coordinating those activities that are spread out among different agencies," said Susan O'Brien, a foundation spokeswoman.

The environmental subcommittee did not endorse a plan to merge the state environmental and natural resources departments, an idea discussed since the election.

A subgroup looking at independent agencies has suggested expanding the scope of the Stadium Authority to include school construction, the purview of local governments.

"The idea has just kind of evolved: Why couldn't they take on more, to standardize construction and design to save the state money," said Louise L. Hayman, a committee member and aide to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

A law enforcement group headed by Harford County Executive James M. Harkins wants to consolidate several state law enforcement agencies.

Under its plan, police from the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Transit Administration and the Motor Vehicle Administration would be combined into a single 570 member department. For major incidents such as a plane crash, "you could draw from one group, and everybody would be on the same page," said MTA police Chief Douglas DeLeaver, whose daughter is a spokeswoman for Ehrlich. "It takes away an overtime problem."

The law enforcement group also wants to consolidate police at university campuses into one entity. Another move would fold smaller departments at agencies such as Maryland Public Television and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation into an existing Department of General Services corps.

Such changes could spark controversy, DeLeaver predicted. "Some people are not going to be happy at all," he said.

Ehrlich could well look favorably at many of the recommendations, given his respect for Mandel, who, despite serving time in prison on federal corruption charges that were later overturned, is considered at expert on government operations.

Mandel, governor from 1969 to 1979, is credited with creating the current Cabinet-form of government in Maryland, overseeing the consolidation of 248 various agencies into 11 departments headed by Cabinet-level secretaries.

Mandel has told Ehrlich that he believes subcabinet agencies have developed too much independent authority since the 1970s, and must be reined in under executive control.

Capital News Service contributed to this article.

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