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Bad move for dwindling DNR

The Baltimore Sun

Management quiz: It's your first year running a cash-strapped state agency with vacancies galore. The top jobs are open at your two most customer-oriented divisions. What do you do to pump up your peeps?

If you answer: "Why, I'll build me and my trusty sidekick brand-new offices," you might be the perfect candidate to run the Department of Natural Resources.

Secretary John Griffin decided to move his office and that of Deputy Secretary Eric Schwaab from the fourth floor of the Annapolis headquarters to right inside the front door.

To make room, Griffin relocated the regional office that sells boating, fishing and hunting licenses about a mile away to rejoin the licensing administrative staff and worker bees, who were kicked out of headquarters a few years ago to make room for a day-care center.

The area being vacated by Griffin and Schwaab will be converted into work space for field staff, according to Monica Johnson, DNR assistant secretary for mission support. She said the move "is part of our ongoing effort to increase efficiency and make the best use of our limited resources."

A DNR spokeswoman offered further clarification: "The decision for the two of them to move downstairs was a conscious effort for their offices to be more accessible and emphasizes their leadership style of support for DNR's field staff."

The cost of this accessibility and leadership style is $25,000.

In the context of a multimillion-dollar budget, that's peanuts. But less than a year ago, shortly after taking the job, Griffin issued a PowerPoint poverty pitch to state lawmakers that warned of staff reductions, program cuts and park closures if he didn't get more money.

Then last summer, the state doubled recreational fishing license fees to help the Fisheries Service through tough times.

And what do customers get in return for their support?

The licensing office is wedged in a nondescript beige-and-brown strip mall between a bank and a public storage facility on a busy strip of West Street. There's no DNR sign on the building. The only signal that you've reached your destination is a tiny sign, stuck in the grass alongside the building, that might be mistaken for a weight-loss offer or an announcement of a real estate open house.

Finding the licensing office makes you feel as if you're the winner of a DNR geocaching contest. It certainly doesn't make you feel as if you're a valued customer.

(Hint: The licensing office is one mile from the end of the West Street exit off eastbound U.S. 50. Make a left at the traffic light onto Admiral Drive and turn left into the parking lot. But don't turn left too quickly, or you'll wind up in a Honda dealership storage lot.)

On Friday morning, staff members at the counter - helpful and pleasant - had to fish through their purses to make change for a license buyer. State employees shouldn't have to do that.

If he was looking to make DNR more accessible, Griffin should have made sure the new licensing office was ready to go before shutting down the old one.

If the goal of all this is to create space for field staff, that's highly suspect, too.

I talked to 22 biologists and Natural Resources Police officers who occasionally visit headquarters for meetings. They pointed out two things: They get out of HQ as fast as they can, but if they have to stay, they scrounge space in their own departments to be closer to colleagues.

Finally, if Griffin and company had spent the year setting the world on fire, this window dressing might have been amusing. But with the exception of what the General Assembly ordered it to do, DNR has been largely stuck in neutral for 12 months.

The Parks Service - whose facilities attract a million visitors a year - begins 2008 without a permanent superintendent or deputy superintendent. Rick Barton, the superintendent, retired in April. His deputy, Rusty Ruszin, retired at the end of October. Neither move was a surprise. So why are the jobs still vacant?

The Fisheries Service opens the new year the same way it began 2007 - without a deputy director. With the expected retirement of Howard King last month, the office lacks a director, too. Where's the sense of urgency in bolstering an operation that serves 650,000 anglers?

Natural Resources Police still has more than 40 vacancies, with a similar number of officers in the Drop Program, which means they'll be retiring within the next five years.

Even a request last week to get a comment from Griffin for this column was postponed until later this week.

On the bright side, though, DNR has added an "Office for a Sustainable Future," which might or might not be a reference to the agency itself, and reporters who cover DNR receive "Sustainability Sense" tips each week to make us feel good about the O'Malley administration.

Over the years and several administrations, Griffin has shined as an innovative thinker and consensus builder. He had a hand in restoring the striped bass population and establishing the Rural Legacy program and the Conservation Resource Enrichment Program to create buffers for wetlands. People inside and outside DNR cheered Griffin's return to the top job.

His task isn't easy. After years of neglect, draining the DNR swamp will be treacherous and exhausting.

Here's hoping Griffin isn't wasting goodwill and his energy rearranging the deck chairs.


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