Less than 24 hours after a special panel approved new rules governing the use of state helicopters and planes by Maryland officials during non-emergencies, Gov. William Donald Schaefer quietly reversed the panel's action.
Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, as chairman of the Maryland Executive Helicopter Advisory Committee, would have had final say over who could use the state's air fleet for so-called VIP flights.
Schaefer's aides say the governor rescinded the rules last week because he was not able to participate in the decision-making process.
But other State House sources say Schaefer saw the panel's decision as a power grab by Steinberg because the new rules would have shifted authority over the flights from the governor's personal staff to Steinberg.
Under the new rules, even Schaefer would have had to ask Steinberg for permission to use a state aircraft.
Schaefer's order, which may have made the new rules the shortest-lived ones in memory, is seen as evidence by some observers that the relationship between the governor and his second-in-command remains strained, despite recent attempts by Schaefer to downplay their problems.
The rules, which were adopted July 2 and reversed a day later, were intended to apply to use of the 15 helicopters and two planes in the State Police aviation division and the one helicopter and one plane belonging to the Department of Natural Resources.
Beyond medical emergency and law enforcement flights, the fleet can be used to shuttle Maryland officials on approved state business trips. Such flights are rare because most officials prefer to travel around the state by car.
Steinberg says the committee came up with the rules because the General Assembly, when it passed the budgets for the State Police and the DNR, included language directing the panel to devise formal protocols for use of the planes and helicopters.
Previously, all requests for VIP flights were routed through Mark L. Wasserman, Schaefer's executive chief of administration, and Capt. Larry W. Tolliver, the head of the State Police executive protection division. The division provides security and drivers for the governor.
Wasserman says he and Tolliver carefully reviewed the few requests for non-emergency use of the planes and helicopters because "it is not a privilege to be taken lightly."
Steinberg says there is no evidence that use of the air fleet has been abused by state officials, but the legislature wanted formal rules to assure that the fleet would be used properly.
Under the new rules, VIP flights would be a low priority and permission would be granted only after requests were reviewed by Steinberg.
"When we developed it, I thought it was a positive step," Steinberg says. "Something came about that caused this [reversal]."
The "something" apparently was Schaefer's anger over the panel's approval. A day after the committee met, Schaefer reportedly summoned John Lang, executive director of the panel, to his office and ordered him to retract a memo he had written explaining the new rules.
That same day, Lang sent out another memo stating that the rules had been suspended "pending further study."
Paul Schurick, Schaefer's liaison to the committee, says the governor only wants to have a hand in developing rules governing use of the fleet.
"The governor felt that the protocol was important enough that he wanted to personally review it," says Schurick. "He felt he wanted to be involved in it. He is the chief executive of the state. He should make the decision or at least have a role in it. He didn't have an opportunity to play a part."