Senate panel approves Philbrick

Environment secretary nominee's strategy pays off

General Assembly

March 02, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Kendl P. Philbrick, who a year ago was being portrayed as a "nightmare" for conservationists, won the unanimous approval of a Senate committee last night for confirmation as Maryland's secretary of the environment.

The Senate Executive Nominations Committee recommended Philbrick's confirmation after he assured the panel he would reserve a "seat at the table" for environmental groups that felt the wrath of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last year after they successfully opposed the previous nominee.

"I've listened to and learned from them," said Philbrick, giving assurances that he would insist on compliance with environmental laws.

In a testament to Philbrick's relentless efforts to reach out to lawmakers over his 10 months as acting secretary, the panel gave him a warm welcome and tossed mostly softball questions.

The cordial treatment was in stark contrast to the wall of skepticism that greeted Ehrlich's first nominee for environment secretary, Lynn Y. Buhl, when she went before the panel last year. Buhl's nomination was defeated in the full Senate, leaving bitter feelings on both sides.

After the state's leading environmental groups came out against Buhl's confirmation, Ehrlich aides threatened to retaliate by shutting them out of deliberations over issues. At times during the confrontation, administration officials argued that environmentalists should withdraw opposition to Buhl because Philbrick, a longtime business executive, would be even worse from their point of view.

In days leading up to the Buhl vote, Ehrlich offered to jettison Philbrick as deputy secretary in return for Buhl's confirmation. Two months after senators spurned that offer and defeated Buhl, Ehrlich named Philbrick acting secretary.

Philbrick has spent much of the past year soothing bruised feelings and reaching out to former foes. He said last night that he met with almost every member of the Senate and more than 100 delegates, as well as conferring with environmental groups.

The strategy paid off at last night's nomination hearing.

Even Sen. Brian E. Frosh, whose withering interrogation helped torpedo Buhl's nomination, limited himself to mildly challenging questions.

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, pressed Philbrick on whether he would support expansion of Ehrlich's signature environmental initiative - a surcharge on water bills to pay for sewage system upgrades - to include a levy on septic systems.

"We believe everyone should be in the game, Senator," Philbrick replied, but said he couldn't commit to specifics without talking to Ehrlich.

Frosh said afterward that Philbrick had been more responsive than Buhl. He said he sent this year's nominee four or five pages of questions and received 15 pages of answers.

"It showed a sincere attempt to address my concerns and an approach to environmental issues that I thought was balanced and I hope continues," Frosh said.

Environmental groups remained neutral on Philbrick. Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said environmentalists would have preferred that Ehrlich name somebody more qualified.

"He didn't, and Mr. Philbrick meanwhile has worked to prove he wasn't the environment's worst nightmare, as he was portrayed a year ago," she said.

Philbrick's nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

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