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Hogan administration signals possible crab policy shift as lawmakers grill officials on firing

Md. officials signaled they could loosen crab harvest limits as they were grilled on a controversial firing.

Maryland officials said Monday they are open to revising policies that have been credited with rebuilding the state's crab population over the past decade — a position state lawmakers allege motivated the firing of a veteran crab scientist last month.

Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton described a "customer service" oriented approach to crab management at a special hearing called to probe the dismissal of Brenda Davis, who gathers data each year to make recommendations on rules that limit blue crab harvests by watermen.

Belton refused to explain why Davis was fired, sparking a contentious argument between Democratic leaders of the General Assembly and the Republican administration over the role of politics in Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Lawmakers accused Gov. Larry Hogan of putting politics above science, directing Belton to remove an exemplary employee after 28 years of service because of complaints from some Eastern Shore watermen.

A Hogan aide countered that Davis is one of 84 so-called "at will" employees that have been dismissed since he took office two years ago, compared to some 600 over the tenure of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

At issue is a possible change to crab management policy that critics argue could threaten the gains seen in the Bay's crab population, but that proponents say could provide a long-awaited boost for a small group of watermen.

If crabs are more abundant, "that leaves room for a lot of discussions," Belton told about three dozen delegates and senators who gathered on their day off from lawmaking.

The hearing began with Davis recounting her firing, which she described as "more than a shock." She joined state government in 1988 and said she had no blemishes on her employee evaluations, which she shared with lawmakers.

So she was blindsided when her supervisor called her into his office Feb. 21 and fired her, she said. He gave her no explanation, she said.

Belton would not provide his side of the story, though he defended his decision. He said he has fired nine people, including Davis, who serve in positions high enough that they are considered to be serving at the pleasure of the governor, though he acknowledged the other eight held higher positions.

"I'm the one who makes that call, and I do not make any of these decisions lightly," he said.

Davis and lawmakers have speculated that the decision was prompted by a group of watermen from Dorchester and Somerset counties who were unhappy with a rule requiring them to throw back smaller crabs, and for whom Davis was a source of frustration. The Bay Journal first reported Davis' firing, and a waterman who spoke with the publication said it was linked to a meeting he and others had with Hogan.

Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, a former Eastern Shore lawmaker who now serves as Hogan's deputy chief of staff, confirmed that Hogan met with the watermen, as well as other Eastern Shore constituents, in mid-February. Neither Belton nor anyone else from the Department of Natural Resources was present, she said.

But she would not describe their discussions — and drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers for that.

"Two years into the administration, you fire a 28-year employee," said Sen. Paul Pinsky of Prince George's County. "There's something missing here, and I'd like you to fill me in."

Haddaway-Riccio declined, but said, "I'm happy to answer any questions about crab regulations you might have."

The state officials spoke as Maryland is getting ready for the new crab season, which opens April 1. They said they are willing to give a closer look to what is, for some watermen, a controversial rule. From April 1 through July 14, they must throw back any male crab smaller than 5 inches across; from July 15 through Nov. 15, the minimum harvest size is 5 1/4 inches.

Most watermen favor the rule, because it means they end up with bigger, more expensive crabs to sell. Environmentalists support it as a way to ensure that more male crabs mature enough to spawn, promoting genetic diversity in the population.

But on the lower Eastern Shore, where crabs tend to be smaller, the rule means lost revenue and wasted effort. The watermen say they would prefer the minimum remain 5 inches all year long, or at least longer into the summer.

Belton explained that the Hogan administration has made an effort to better include watermen in its decisionmaking, after the seafood industry complained of being left out under O'Malley. That will continue as state officials consider any policy revisions based on results from an annual survey of bay crab populations that is released in May.

"We review all available data and science and review public discourse at every avenue possible before we make any decisions," Belton said. "My staff seeks to provide the best customer service possible."

Two watermen who spoke at the hearing expressed dismay at Davis' firing. Scott Todd, a Dorchester County waterman who told the Bay Journal he complained to Hogan about Davis, did not attend. He could not be reached for comment.

In the past, Davis said she has recommended the rule not change. Since it was imposed in 2001, Chesapeake blue crab population estimates have rebounded from historic lows of less than 300 million to more than 550 million last year.

But, she stressed, her recommendations are passed up some five levels before becoming policy.

"The one thing I did not do was make a policy decision," she said.

Now, she said, scientists in her former department are asking to be demoted to civil-servant level positions that aren't subject to the whims of the administration, an assertion some lawmakers questioned. She said her firing has had a chilling effect.

"The future sustainability of Maryland's natural resources depends on these very dedicated individuals not feeling like bad things are going to happen if they step up and do the right thing," she said.

An earlier version of this article misstated the timing at which the male crab harvest limit changes from 5 inches to 5 1/4 inches. The Sun regrets the error.

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