6 months after battle, future of Md. environment chief foggy


The business card says "acting secretary," but Kendl P. Philbrick refuses to look over his shoulder for a permanent replacement.

Almost six months after his predecessor was rejected by the Maryland Senate - one of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s earliest defeats in this year's legislative session - Philbrick hasn't wavered from the Republican administration's plan to reshape the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"I'm here to do the job, not to warm a seat," says the 61-year- old former corporate executive. "Let's get on with the work of MDE."

Once cast by the administration as environmentalists' worst nightmare, Philbrick has his work cut out. Originally named to the department's No. 2 job, he gained prominence during the debate on Ehrlich's choice for the top spot, Lynn Y. Buhl.

During the struggle over her nomination, the governor's negotiators tried to pressure the Senate and environmental community by threatening to leave Philbrick in the job if Buhl wasn't confirmed.

The Senate called Ehrlich's bluff. So Philbrick - who had never sought an environmental job in the first place - now must develop a relationship with groups that have been some of the governor's sharpest critics.

Unbowed, Philbrick has laid out a four-page agenda of initiatives - including lead poisoning prevention, cleanup and redevelopment of polluted industrial sites, upgrade of wastewater treatment plans and tighter standards for pollution emissions. He also says he wants to improve the department's reputation in Maryland's business community, which has long complained about complex rules.

But Philbrick's background - and his path to the top of the department charged with protecting Maryland's air, water and land - continues to trouble many environmental advocates.

"I haven't seen anything that gives me an understanding of what he is going to do for the department and what he'll do for improved water and air quality in Maryland," says Theresa Pierno, a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Next step

Questions linger about Philbrick's future: Will Ehrlich nominate him as permanent secretary this winter? Or will he follow through on his threat to leave Philbrick in an "acting" capacity for the remainder of his term as governor, creating a possible constitutional storm?

Ehrlich and Philbrick are likely to meet over the next few weeks to discuss the options. "We are treading very lightly," said Ehrlich's communications director, Paul Schurick. "We're proceeding with him as an acting secretary. There are no immediate plans to change that."

Senate Democratic leaders say it would be illegal to leave Philbrick in a quasi-permanent acting position but insist they'll give him a chance.

"I'm willing to give him a hearing," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor fight against Buhl. "It ain't a situation where you should get on-the-job training. That's really what's happening here.

"Is it possible he'll have learned enough so that by next January he'll be ready to do the job? It sure is," Frosh added. "Is that the right way for the administration and the department to go about the business of protecting the environment? I don't think so."

Philbrick has no doubts: "I'm not looking to go anywhere. I'd like to keep this job."

In a state such as Maryland, with a reputation for environmental consciousness, a former corporate executive is an unlikely choice, something even Philbrick readily concedes.

A native of West Virginia who graduated from Towson High School, Philbrick spent more than two decades in real estate management for large corporations, most recently as an executive vice president for a Lockheed Martin Corp. subsidiary in California. He returned to Maryland in 1995, moving to Fallston, where his plans for this year included semiretirement.

But the lifelong Republican had worked occasionally on projects with the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. He figured his expertise might make him valuable on a part-time basis to help with the occasional deal.

"I was pretty surprised when they came to me with a proposal to come to this department and be the deputy secretary," Philbrick says. "I spent about 45 minutes talking to the governor, the lieutenant governor and [Ehrlich transition team chairman] Jim Brady, and I became convinced I could do a lot here."

Philbrick came to a department that was a top priority for former Gov. Parris N. Glendening - and a frequent campaign target of Ehrlich, who criticized its alleged "gotcha" mentality in dealing with business.

The transition was rocky from the start. Administration officials publicly indicated that they might merge the departments of Environment and Natural Resources to save money - an idea that sparked concern among environmental groups but has apparently been rejected or set on the back burner.

A firestorm

The nomination of Buhl, a midlevel administrator in Michigan, quickly became the environmental firestorm of the legislative session.

In the days before the crucial Senate vote on Buhl's nomination, Philbrick was thrust into the tense negotiations - not as a peacemaker, but as a potential bogeyman who would wreak havoc on the environment.

Administration officials warned Buhl's opponents that Philbrick was the one they really should fear and offered to cast him aside for Buhl's confirmation. Environmentalists rejected the deal, and Buhl now works in the Department of Planning.

"They said, 'He's obviously anti-environment because he worked in the corporate sector,'" Philbrick says of his skeptics. "But I've worked on 35 brownfields projects myself, turning them around, helping make sure they were cleaned up and putting them back into use."

In recent weeks, Philbrick has been circulating a list of environmental initiatives that Ehrlich supports - land redevelopment and community revitalization; water quality; air quality; improving efficiency and effectiveness; and state and federal relations and outreach.

Despite the Ehrlich administration's ties to the national GOP leadership, Philbrick says he is fighting to amend President Bush's proposed "Clear Skies" legislation to include tighter curbs on pollution that floats to Maryland from Midwestern power plants.

On the other side, there's an emphasis on reversing the department's perceived anti-business reputation - making permit applications easier to understand and encouraging inspectors to help polluters comply with laws instead of just writing tickets and issuing fines.

"Are we measuring our success, what we do, by how many enforcement actions we take, as opposed to how many times we help solve an environmental problem?" asks Bernard A. Penner, the department's enforcement and compliance coordinator.

Such talk pleases many Maryland business leaders. "They're trying to put in place a process that breeds cooperation, and that's the kind of thing that makes a difference with the business community," says William Burns of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

But environmental advocates are worried. They say Maryland's budget woes have left the department - like most state agencies - with too few funds and too many vacant positions.

They also note that many top experienced officials were purged with the change in administration - though Philbrick has kept others, including the director of water management.

"There hasn't been a lot of notice from the Ehrlich administration about what they're doing," says Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "It's interesting to hear them talk about wanting inspectors to be more helpful and friendly, but that's going to take a commitment from the agency for more inspectors and more resources."

Most environmental leaders say they've had little contact with the new secretary - who often describes himself as "an active environmentalist, not an environmental activist."

"The environmental advocacy groups have a place," Philbrick says. "They have a place at the table working with us when they act responsibly and talk responsibly about their concerns. We're not going to allow the environmental groups to dictate policy in the Ehrlich administration."

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