Politicians trade accusations over Md. storm-relief efforts

GOP officials say O'Malley, Duncan improperly sent aid

September 16, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Maryland's top elected officials are accusing each other of playing politics with their relief efforts - a fight that could carry into the 2006 race for governor.

Officials from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration have spent the week accusing his Democratic rivals from Baltimore and Montgomery County of improperly sending aid to Louisiana while a state Republican Party official branded those relief efforts as political grandstanding.

The Democrats, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery Executive Douglas M. Duncan, have countered with evidence that their efforts were properly approved by the state and that Ehrlich is trying to deflect attention from their success at providing assistance to Louisiana.

"It's absolutely a political attack" by Ehrlich, said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association who is a longtime Ehrlich supporter and frequent harsh critic of O'Malley. "This is all political."

Fugate and Montgomery County fire officials said recent criticism from John Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, was surprising because they consider him a reliable partner who they believe succumbed to political pressure to criticize Duncan and O'Malley.

Droneburg said through a spokesman that the two leading Democratic candidates for governor next year did not follow proper mutual-aid procedures in sending help to the Gulf Coast. Yesterday, Droneburg spent the day congratulating the Montgomery County firefighters still assisting New Orleans and could not be reached for comment.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele joined that criticism yesterday when he told a Baltimore radio station that O'Malley "jumped the gun" by sending his rescue personnel to Louisiana before he had the proper approvals.

State-to-state aid for emergencies typically must wait for a formal request from the federal Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC. But Duncan and O'Malley both said they got that approval.

O'Malley administration officials had been in touch with the mayor of Gretna, La., shortly after Katrina struck.

"I said, `Come to Gretna,' " said Mayor Ronnie Harris. "I give him kudos. At least someone made a decision and sent someone we needed."

Still, help was not sent right away. O'Malley had to wait for the EMAC request to be funneled through MEMA. While they waited, a Baltimore fire official traveled to Louisiana with Clay B. Stamp, who was orchestrating Maryland's relief efforts, to assess what was needed.

With Stamp's blessing, city Fire Chief William Goodwin began to assemble a contingent of more than 100 firefighters, police and other personnel with dozens of vehicles. They left Sept. 4, the same day that Droneburg signed the EMAC interstate mutual-aid request, according to a copy of the document provided to The Sun.

Jeff Welsh, the spokesman for MEMA, said that the city convoy, which arrived in Gretna on Sept. 5, hit the road a few hours before the approval officially was signed. He said even those few hours could have resulted in liability issues.

But Welsh initially said that the approval did not come through until the city convoy had arrived in Louisiana. After being informed of the date on the document, he said the authorization probably came on the same day the convoy left.

"Sept. 4 was a long day," he said. Then he denied claims that Droneburg's comments were political or that the director has since apologized to fire officials from Montgomery County.

"The group of people out here at MEMA are not political. The bulk of us are career emergency management people," Welsh said.

A letter sent to Ehrlich yesterday from Goodwin, Fugate and another city fire union official, Rick Schluderberg, expressed a different opinion. It stated that Droneburg's criticism was "ascribing political motivations" to rescue efforts.

"This injection of politics is reprehensible," the letter states.

Duncan agreed. His county is home to a search-and-rescue team authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The team, Maryland Task Force One, was dispatched by FEMA shortly after the hurricane struck. A week later, on Labor Day, about 100 county firefighters and other rescue personnel traveled to New Orleans with an EMAC request.

Welsh said that that trip was properly authorized but that a subsequent trip by Duncan's top officials, including his fire chief, to visit the firefighters should have been cleared with MEMA.

"They are factually wrong," Duncan said. "We didn't send anyone down until we got approval."

Montgomery Fire and Rescue spokesman Pete Piringer said once the EMAC request is granted the responding agency can send whomever they want to provide assistance. "[The request] didn't say send anybody but the chief," said Piringer. "It doesn't say just send the rank and file."

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