Environment Secretary Wilson, higher-education chief Lyons to leave

Wilson faced tough fights on regulation, staffing issues

November 23, 2010|By Annie Linskey and Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's secretary of the environment, Shari T. Wilson, announced Tuesday that she is leaving her post in two weeks, making her one of two Cabinet-level officials to leave the O'Malley administration in a single day.

James E. Lyons, the secretary of higher education, also announced Tuesday that he is retiring. He is 67.

Gov. Martin O'Malley offered praise for both officials in separate statements, thanking Lyons for his "remarkable service." The governor complimented Wilson's work on new storm-water management regulations and climate-change rules.

"Shari brought an in-depth knowledge of environmental and public health issues to MDE," O'Malley said. "Her expertise will be missed."

Wilson, 49, says she had been considering leaving since early this year and decided in midsummer to do so, but didn't tell the governor until just after the election that she didn't want to be considered for a second term. She said O'Malley did not ask her to resign.

Instead, she said, the rigors of the $132,000-a-year job were wearing on her.

"Literally, it takes 120 percent to do this job every day, and it starts at 7 in the morning and ends at 8 or 9 at night," she said. "I … was unsure I could keep up the pace for another four years," she said, adding that she believed "the agency deserves someone who will be in for the long haul ."

Wilson's last day is Dec. 3. Robert Summers, a deputy secretary at MDE, will take over on an interim basis, the agency announced.

Three of the 20 Cabinet-level secretaries have announced that they will not stay for a second term, part of an expected post-election shake-up. Last week embattled Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore said he was leaving to pursue a job in another state. The governor also announced last week that he was appointing a new state prosecutor.

Wilson was the target of intense criticism during the recent gubernatorial campaign, with small-business owners and developers complaining that the agency took too long to reply to requests and did not enforce the law with an even hand.

On the campaign trail, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich would call MDE alternately the "most broken" or "second-most broken" state agency. The agency has been embroiled in a series of controversies over regulations and enforcement in the past several years, taking criticism from farmers, developers and even environmentalists.

The agency is charged with overseeing environmental regulations, including compliance with tougher federal rules, but remains chronically underfunded and understaffed, according to a state fiscal analysis. That study showed that the agency's $264 million budget needs millions more a year to keep up with personnel costs and additional state and federal mandates.

Agricultural interests objected to MDE's moves to regulate chicken farms, while developers lashed back at rules proposed last year requiring tighter controls on polluted runoff from new construction and redevelopment.

In both cases, the agency eased some of its requirements in response. Some environmentalists also faulted the agency's enforcement diligence, and the Waterkeeper Alliance even petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to strip MDE of its authority to regulate water polluters.

"The best compliment would be to have been judged to be a fair regulator," she said, but added that "when you're successful at it, no one's happy."

Charles Schaller, a partner with the Annapolis law firm of Linowes and Blocher, frequently battles MDE on behalf of developers, and said he hopes the next secretary will lead the agency toward what he called a more "holistic" view of regulation. "All [developers] ask for is to be treated fairly and evenly," he said.

Wilson said she'd been focused in the past year on getting the controversial storm-water pollution regulations in place and on developing the state's plan for accelerating Chesapeake Bay cleanup. The state's final plan is due Monday.

Wilson's said she has been so busy with her MDE post that she has not looked for a new position. She said she plans to spend a little time with family in Florida before coming back to Maryland "to try to figure out what to do next."

"I was very fortunate to be able to work on a number of policy and organizational changes,'' she said. "If I've done a good job, it will stick."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

timothy.wheeler@baltsun.com

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