Mayor offers new bay effort

Ehrlich is lacking as steward, says O'Malley

Maryland Votes 2006

August 08, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Trolling for environmental votes, Mayor Martin O'Malley promised yesterday an array of policies to save the Chesapeake Bay if elected governor, while criticizing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a development-friendly leader with a flawed record of protecting land and water.

O'Malley, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, said that if elected he would create a new state program called BayStat to marshal efforts to monitor and protect the bay.

The proposal is a variation on Baltimore's CitiStat agency, an O'Malley-created statistical management system that requires city agency heads to answer weekly questions about services like filling potholes and maintaining city vehicles. Results are tabulated and posted online.

"If you don't believe that anything can be done about [the bay], then by all means let's just keep doing what we haven't been doing under Bob Ehrlich for four more years," said O'Malley, standing on a sun-baked bluff above the bay in Downs Park in Pasadena.

Ehrlich administration and campaign officials said O'Malley's proposals simply repackage existing state efforts under a new layer of bureaucracy. And the state's chief protector of the bay - the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - said O'Malley misrepresented its data to blame Ehrlich for the Chesapeake's ill health.

"All the mayor offers is empty, tired rhetoric," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor's office. "All the governor offers is unprecedented environmental achievement."

O'Malley did not specify how much the monitoring program would cost or how he would pay for it, but he said it represented a new direction on environmental policy.

The mayor also proposed fully funding land-preservation efforts, accelerating upgrades of water treatment plants, increasing water monitoring money and creating an agency to oversee regional restoration efforts with other states. All of the plans - including publishing a bay budget and issuing daily public information alerts - would be managed under BayStat.

O'Malley gave faint praise for one of the Ehrlich administration's chief environmental initiatives - a $30 yearly fee on sewage and septic bills to pay for wastewater treatment plant improvements that Ehrlich backers pointed to yesterday as evidence of the governor's stewardship.

The mayor said the initiative, known as the "flush tax," was not enough. He said 72 percent of the sewage treatment facilities in the program have not even entered the design phase for improvements.

But Fawell said the program is on schedule and would not have been attempted without Ehrlich's initiative.

O'Malley's news release about yesterday's event said the mayor's criticism was supported by the near-failing grade of "D" that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave to Ehrlich and to the bay's health. The release said that the foundation claimed two decades of improvements for the bay had come to a halt under the Republican governor.

Foundation spokeswoman Beth Lefebvre said her organization never pinned the blame on Ehrlich, and that in 2000 - when Democrat Parris N. Glendening was governor - it gave the bay the same grade.

And, she added, "in 1983 it was even worse. ... We never ever mentioned Bob Ehrlich."

One environmental group, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, did give Ehrlich a D+ for his first two years in office and is currently formulating a grade for 2005 and 2006, said Terry Harris, a group spokesman.

Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said O'Malley's mischaracterization of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's report is an example of how the mayor irresponsibly bashes the governor to avoid a real debate about his record in Baltimore.

Ehrlich backers said state officials responsible for bay restoration meet every month to review monitoring data and coordinate efforts.

But the mayor said BayStat would infuse those pertinent state agencies with a sense of urgency to produce results.

O'Malley said he would not redirect state funds that are dedicated for Program Open Space to cover budget shortfalls. The state collects money for the land-preservation program through a tax on real-estate transactions, but Ehrlich transferred more than $450 million from the fund to balance the state operating budget during three of the past four fiscal years.

This year, however, Ehrlich did not divert any money, and the state will spend several hundred million dollars on land preservation programs.

Though Ehrlich alienated some environmentalists by diverting open-space funding, O'Malley has also made some activists uneasy recently with his shifting positions on the controversial Blackwater resort development in Dorchester County. The 2,700-home project near Cambridge has become a lightning rod for complaints from environmentalists who say it threatens the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

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