ANNAPOLIS — Democratic and Republican legislators expressed frustration, for different reasons, at a hearing Monday on the firing of a longtime Department of Natural Resources employee.
Democrats publicly expressed concerns over the February termination of Brenda Davis, who was manager of the agency’s crab management program, and over the lack of a response from senior advisers to Gov. Larry Hogan. Meanwhile, Republicans called the proceedings a partisan witch hunt over a firing that was legal because Davis was an at-will employee.
Davis, a 28-year employee of the department, was fired last month after Hogan and other officials met on the Eastern Shore with a group of watermen who expressed concerns about 16-year old crabbing regulations and a desire to extend the amount of time that smaller crabs can be harvested.
“I think (Davis’) name was on a hit list,” Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County and vice chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said following the more than 90-minute hearing.
The Senate committee met jointly with the House Environment and Transportation Committee in an attempt to get answers about Davis’s firing from Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Hogan’s deputy chief of staff, and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark J. Belton.
“Since you couldn’t give those watermen what they really wanted, which was a change in crab policy, you gave them something else – Brenda Davis’ job,” Pinsky said to Haddaway-Riccio and Belton during the hearing.
Davis, who was present at the hearing and testified, waived her right to keep her personnel records private and presented more than two decades of performance evaluations to the committee that she said showed no blemishes.
But Davis said the debate over allowing watermen primarily in two counties to continue to catch smaller, 5-inch crabs beyond the July cutoff when the minimum size grows a quarter of an inch was an important but controversial debate.
“Sometimes, depending on the issues, it can be pretty controversial and things can get pretty heated,” Davis said. “If we were to ignore science to make things easier, frankly that would be irresponsible.
Davis was fired less than a week after watermen Dorchester and Somerset counties met with Hogan and members of his administration. How much the complaints played into Davis’ termination is a matter of speculation.
“My dismissal has negative implications that are far-reaching beyond me and my family,” Davis said. “The scientific community around the bay sees it as a sign that science is no longer going to be a part of the decision making process for management of the bay. Other natural resources professionals are afraid to do their jobs. They’re afraid to implement decisions. There are other program managers who are asking to have their positions downgraded. People want to be voluntarily demoted so they are no longer in an at-will position.”
Haddaway-Riccio declined to comment directly on the firing of Davis, citing personnel issues, as well as conversations that took place during the meeting with watermen that preceded the firing or conversations that may have taken place between herself and Belton, who did not attend the meeting.
Similarly, Belton declined to discuss the firing of Davis or any other employee.
The firing of Davis was first reported in the Bay Journal.
Belton called the report “speculation and innuendo” and said the report attempted to “make connections that aren’t there.”
No replacement has yet been named for Davis and Belton said the department is not expected to consider possible changes to crab sizes or harvest regulations until May when the report on winter crab population surveys are released.
Haddaway-Riccio noted that only 84 state employees classified as at-will have been fired under Hogan, comparing that to the 400 in the first three years under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. Another 200 or so were fired under the last five years of O’Malley’s two-term administration, she said.
Republican members at the hearing, including Sen. Gail Bates, R-Howard, and Del. William G. Folden, R-Frederick, said Davis’ firing was legal within current law.
Others said the hearing was a political witch hunt and brought up memories of a legislative committee established to review firings under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel. said the joint hearing was pure politics and the legislature never reviewed similar actions taken by O’Malley.
“I don’t recall a single hearing in those eight years,” said Simonaire.