State agency to stay in city

Ehrlich-backed plan to move Department of Planning to Prince George's rejected

August 31, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The Board of Public Works rejected a proposal yesterday to move a small state agency from Baltimore to Prince George's County, a politically charged idea that pitted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. against his frequent ally, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

Dozens of elected officials and community activists from Prince George's crowded the ceremonial hearing room in the State House to plead for the relocation of the 110-person state Department of Planning, which they said would be a long-overdue recognition of the county's importance.

Ehrlich strongly backed the move, which he said would fulfill a 2002 campaign promise.

But Schaefer vigorously opposed the proposal, saying it was wrong to take jobs away from a city he said was struggling and give them to a booming suburban Washington jurisdiction.

"Prince George's has great growth, right?" Schaefer said. "And you have to have an agency from Baltimore City that's on its behind? You have to take it away?"

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, along with Ehrlich and Schaefer, the third member of the public works board, listened to the arguments yesterday but ultimately opposed the move.

Kopp, a former Democratic delegate from Montgomery County, said she had heard complaints from Planning Department employees who opposed a relocation and believes any decision to shift an agency's headquarters should be done more deliberatively.

When Kopp announced her intentions, Ehrlich agreed to remove the proposal from yesterday's agenda, avoiding what would have been a losing vote.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor intends to bring the matter up again but has no timetable for doing so.

The relocation plan has been debated for months, and General Assembly leaders thought they had killed it earlier this year when they stripped $3 million from the state budget that Ehrlich proposed spending on the move. But administration officials continued with plans for a lease, saying they would somehow find the money.

Some current planning department employees complained that they would be forced to take on unmanageable commutes if the plan was adopted, and others questioned a move that would have bumped the agency's annual rent from about $10,000 in a state-owned building in Baltimore to more than $800,000 in Prince George's.

Just two weeks away from the primary election and two months from the general, the issue took on far more political importance than the location of a government office might usually warrant.

Prince George's County is the state's second largest jurisdiction, and home to the biggest concentration of registered Democrats in Maryland. Ehrlich, a Republican, got just 23 percent of the vote there in 2002, losing by more than 105,000 votes, which he has said was a far worse showing than he had expected. His running mate that year, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is a former chairman of the Prince George's Republican central committee.

Since then, Ehrlich has sought to improve his ties there, and he said on the campaign trail this week that he expects a significantly better performance in the county during this year's election -- a development that would cut into the Democrats' traditional base and make it harder for their candidate, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, to win.

Yesterday, Ehrlich said he was determined to support the agency's move because he believed Prince George's County deserved it and because it would demonstrate his commitment to the county

"It's symbolic," Ehrlich said. "This did not begin in some Machiavellian political way. It goes back 4 1/2 years in my campaign promise to you that I would put a state agency in Prince George's County."

The tension between Baltimore -- which houses most state workers -- and Prince George's splits O'Malley and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat.

O'Malley has opposed the planning department move and has said he favors moving the Department of Homeland Security, a smaller agency located in Annapolis, to the county instead.

But yesterday Brown sent a letter to Ehrlich -- which the governor made sure to point out during the meeting -- urging the board to approve the move.

Schaefer insisted after the meeting that he objected to the move solely because he believes it's bad policy. But the comptroller, in one of the toughest election battles of his political career, stood to gain politically from his position, too.

While Prince George's voters could play a huge role in the three-way Democratic comptroller's primary, Schaefer -- a former city councilman and mayor -- has always had his political base in and around Baltimore. Standing up for the city yesterday gave him the chance to diffuse criticism that he is too close to Ehrlich.

Schaefer didn't directly criticize the governor for pushing the move, but he did chastise members of the administration.

"Audrey, I can't believe you would do this to Baltimore," Schaefer said to state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott.

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