WHEN Maryland's top environmental official attends an event for environmentalists, he can expect all manner of questions.
But probably not, "What are you doing here?"
The recent impertinence was understandable, however, in the case of Kendl P. Philbrick, Acting secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
It was only last winter that the Ehrlich administration was using Philbrick, a career businessman from Lockheed Martin Corp., as its bogeyman to pressure the environmental community into supporting Lynn Y. Buhl, the governor's controversial pick for MDE secretary.
"The governor's people came to me, and said we'll get rid of Philbrick [Buhl's proposed deputy at the time] if you support Buhl," recalls state Sen. Brian Frosh, a key opponent of Buhl's nomination.
"Next, they came back and said if you don't support Buhl, you'll get Philbrick," Frosh says, "so they really undermined his credibility."
Indeed, after Buhl was rejected, an angry Ehrlich made Philbrick acting secretary, which didn't require Senate confirmation.
With another legislative session opening next week, Ehrlich announced yesterday that he will formally nominate Philbrick for the Senate to vote up or down as the man to lead the state's pollution control programs.
"He would not be my first choice, but I can't say I'd draw a line in the sand," says Frosh.
"With no viable alternative in sight, he should be acceptable," says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"We feel Maryland deserves better, but we have a lot of work to do this session and hope not to spend time on personnel matters," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, a leading Maryland environmentalist.
Such sentiments are a significant, if grudging, shift in the opposition. And you've got to give Ken Philbrick credit for that.
"I'm here to learn," was his answer to the above-mentioned question as to what he was doing at an environmental event.
He has been spending his evenings, for months now, making the rounds of environmentalists' gatherings - staying through the whole evenings - and also talking with past MDE secretaries.
I spent a couple of hours with Philbrick recently, and he has grasped at least the big picture of the real problems with the bay and the state's environment. He has come to realize that current Republican air-quality plans at the federal level won't do the job for Maryland or the Chesapeake.
He takes to heart much of a blistering report Frosh had the University of Maryland do on problems with staffing and permit handling at MDE.
"I see it as a help, not a threat," Philbrick says. "We need more resources, no doubt about it."
And the word in the environmental community is that staff morale at MDE under Philbrick is high.
Philbrick calls "absolutely wrong" the statement by Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick that environmentalists "lost their seat at the table" when they didn't support Buhl.
He recognizes - about time someone did - that in pursuing an aggressive cleanup of sewage treatment plants, we can't forget the millions of people in the bay watershed who are on outdated, polluting septic systems.
On the subject of population growth, the largest and most ignored cause of environmental decline, Philbrick concedes, "We don't have a way now to control it."
"But I am for intelligent growth. If a jurisdiction's sewage treatment plant is marginal, they have no business trying to increase growth in their area."
So give Philbrick credit. He seems smart, earnest and open-minded. On the other hand, given the way he was presented last year as the worse-than-Buhl candidate, one is left to wonder, as Schmidt-Perkins says: "Will the real Ken Philbrick please stand up?"
When all's said and done, we've got two career corporate men in the top jobs at an agency charged with regulating business and industry (Stephen Pattison, formerly from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is Philbrick's assistant in charge of pollution programs).
Perhaps the real question isn't whether Philbrick's done a good job of playing the bad hand that was dealt him. He has, working to preserve his job with no commitment from the governor to keep him until recent days.
But why has the Ehrlich administration spent the whole year frittering away any chance to select a qualified Republican environmental expert who would engender real bipartisan support?
They recently let slip Brian Griffin, Oklahoma's well-regarded secretary of environment. He was prepared to take the MDE job, sources who spoke with him say; but the Ehrlich people waited so long, he took another position days before the Maryland offer came.
Tracy Mehan, until recently a top EPA water-quality official, is knowledgeable about the Chesapeake Bay and is another who would get high marks from all concerned parties.
If Philbrick is confirmed, as seems likely, I wish him well. But Ehrlich has yet to give the environment the priority it deserves.