Philbrick, as Ehrlich nominee, sways foes

Acting environment chief tapped for permanent job

Anti-pollution initiative in works

January 08, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Acting Environmental Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick will be nominated for the permanent position when the Maryland General Assembly opens next week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday.

The governor's decision to submit Philbrick for confirmation by the Senate comes less than a year after Philbrick's predecessor, Lynn Y. Buhl, was rejected for the position - the Republican administration's first major defeat at the hands of Democratic lawmakers.

"We think he's done a terrific job," Ehrlich said of Philbrick in an interview yesterday. "The odds were against him every step of the way, and he appears to have won a lot of support simply as a function of doing a meritorious job."

Philbrick - a former corporate executive who had little previous experience in regulation and enforcement - has spent months wooing Democratic legislators and environmental advocacy groups.

He won grudging respect from environmentalists for several early policy actions and persuading the governor to join other Northeastern states in an air pollution lawsuit against the federal government.

"He has so impressed people that even people who disagree with him philosophically are now willing to support him," Ehrlich said.

Tonight, Ehrlich and Philbrick are expected to announce what will be the administration's most significant environmental initiative of the legislative session - a water surcharge on Maryland homeowners and businesses to help pay for upgrades to sewage treatment plants.

The surcharge, likely to be $2.50 per month for homeowners, could raise tens of millions of dollars per year and eventually make significant reductions to harmful nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Democratic senators who led the opposition to Buhl's nomination in 2003 - including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - concede they're unlikely to wage a similar fight against Philbrick this year.

"I don't believe I've ever met anybody who's worked harder to gain the confidence of elected officials," Miller said yesterday.

Asked whether he will be voting for Philbrick, Miller offered the next best thing: "What I intend to do is speak positively about him to the Democrats" in a caucus meeting.

Ehrlich said Miller and Philbrick had played golf, and Miller "told me, over the phone last week, that he's been really impressed with the guy."

The decision to nominate Philbrick for the permanent position is a stunning turnaround for the administration.

Philbrick was initially selected to be Buhl's deputy. But during last winter's confirmation fight, Ehrlich aides offered to sacrifice Philbrick and replace him with a deputy more acceptable to environmentalists, if Senate Democrats would approve Buhl.

The Ehrlich aides also warned that Philbrick was more likely to be environmentalists' worst nightmare - a characterization that Philbrick has spent months trying to live down.

"I've worked hard to prove that I'm an environmental businessman and am someone capable of running the department and protecting the environment," Philbrick said yesterday. "I think a lot of those comments were made in frustration and anger. Yes, it was an issue early on, but I think I have been able to convince them."

Since Buhl was defeated by the Senate, she has been working in the administration's Department of Planning to coordinate legislative and regulatory changes in Maryland's "brownfields" program, which promotes cleanup of contaminated industrial sites.

Despite his efforts, Philbrick has not necessarily converted the opposition.

"Ten months ago, they're threatening us with him, and today he's being appointed by the governor," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland. "He's a nice guy, but he does not have the credentials to lead Maryland."

The governor's staff concedes that it interviewed several potential candidates for the permanent position, just in case it became clear that Philbrick could not win confirmation. But Ehrlich said yesterday that Philbrick has been his top choice since Buhl was defeated.

Yesterday's decision removes a threat Ehrlich made last spring to leave Philbrick in an acting capacity throughout the four-year term, avoiding another confrontation with the Senate.

Senate Democrats vowed to challenge that tactic as a violation of Maryland's Constitution. But Ehrlich said yesterday that he does not intend to make any immediate permanent nominations for two other high-ranking positions now filled by acting officials - Higher Education Secretary Calvin W. Burnett and State Police Supt. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and the Senate's leading environmentalist, said yesterday that he has not yet made up his mind on Philbrick: "I want to hear what he has to say."

Frosh met with Philbrick late last year and plans another meeting next week.

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