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DNR secretary's confirmation back on track

Acting Natural Resource Secretary Joseph P. Gill's confirmation as the department's permanent chief appears back on track. A Senate committee Monday approved Gill's nomination after he apologized for remarks that angered watermen and vowed to work on closing what he called a "communication gap."

The Executive Nominations Committe voted to send Gill's nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, was the only dissenter, though three other Republicans on the 18-member panel abstained.

Gill's confirmation has been on hold since late January, when the president of the Maryland Watermen's Association accused him of threatening commercial fishermen with loss of catch if the department failed to win legislative authority to change fishing seasons and quotas on short notice. Robert T. Brown, the group's president, said Gill warned him "I will hurt you" after Brown and other watermen appeared at a hearing to urge lawmakers not to grant the department so much regulatory leeway.

Watermen crowded into a Senate committee room Monday evening to show their displeasure with Gill as Brown recounted the incident and a series of other grievances commercial fishermen have against Gill and the department. Brown charged that Gill's behavior reflected an uncooperative and unprofessional attitude toward the commercial fishing industry that should disqualify him to run the department that regulates their livelihood.

Letters from local watermen's groups representing more than 1,000 people also were submitted opposing Gill's confirmation.

John R. Griffin, who had been natural resources secretary until being tapped as Gov. Martin O'Malley's chief of staff last year, urged the committee to confirm Gill.  Griffin said much of the watermen's ire is really over regulatory decisions made by the department to curtail or change the catch of blue crabs, oysters, rockfish and menhaden - nearly of them made before Gill became acting secretary.

Former Sen. Robert R. Neall, who represented Anne Arundel County, also spoke on behalf of Gill, calling him "a good man" and a caring, dedicated professional who nevertheless was undoubtedly not perfect.  Neall urged the committee to look beyond the alleged threat and consider Gill's 17 years of involvement with DNR.  He was the department's chief lawyer for 14 years before being tapped as deputy secretary in 2010.

But Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, told Neall, "If it's true what they said, then I have concerns."

Gill then gave his version of the alleged threat, saying he had advised Brown after the hearing that if the bill didn't pass, the department would have to be more conservative in how many fish it could allow to be caught, which would hurt watermen in general.  He denied threatening Brown or the industry, but apologized nonetheless. The fishery legislation has since been held for summer study.

"It is my responsiblity as a public official to take responsibility for my communications,"  he said. When asked how he could work with watermen, given the grievances they'd voiced, he said, "I commit to have an open door and to closing the communication gap."

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who is chairwoman of the nominations committee, said the panel's majority felt the alleged threat was not sufficient to block Gill's nomination.

"We thought he probably might have erred, but he did apologize," she said. The bulk of the wateremen's complaints, she added, seemed to be over policy decisions regarding their livelihood.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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