Hogan administration officials refused to answer lawmakers’ questions Monday about why the state’s longtime blue crab manager was fired after watermen had complained to Gov. Larry Hogan about a crabbing regulation they wanted eased.
Appearing before an unusual joint hearing of House and Senate committees, Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton acknowledged that the Hogan administration is taking pains to give watermen a voice in policies affecting them. But he and a Hogan aide bristled at the notion that state natural resources officials were putting the desires of watermen above the conclusions of science.
“We do not do that. There is no example I can think of where that has occurred. Frankly, I’m dismayed at the question,” Belton said.
He added: “The purpose of science is to inform, not dictate, decisions.”
Brenda Davis, who had worked on sustaining the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population with the Department of Natural Resources for 28 years, was told her services were no longer needed on Feb. 21. She said she was not given a reason, but the firing came about a week after a small group of Dorchester County watermen had met with Hogan and his deputy chief of staff, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio. A waterman who attended the meeting told the Bay Journal that those in attendance voiced frustration about Davis, whom they perceived as inflexible.
The Dorchester County watermen wanted to ease a crabbing regulation they considered harmful to their livelihood. They wanted the department to permit crabbers to keep crabs as small as 5 inches across the entire crabbing season, from April 1 to Dec. 15. Regulations in effect since 2001 increase the minimum catchable size from 5 inches to 5.25 inches on July 15. The increase allows male crabs more time to mate and sustain the Bay’s crab population, scientists say. Davis told lawmakers that scientists had warned that relaxing that limit could imperil the population, but that in the end the decision was made well above her pay grade, by the DNR secretary or even the governor or his staff.
Under questioning by Sen. Paul Pinsky, who called for the hearing, Haddaway-Riccio repeatedly said she would not discuss private conversations she’d had either with Belton or with the watermen who met with the governor, nor would she discuss personnel issues.
“I’m not going to reveal the private conversations that may or may not have taken place at a private meeting,” said Haddaway-Riccio, a Republican former delegate who represented the mid-Eastern Shore. “I am not going to discuss any conversations I may or may not have had with constituents.”
Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, retorted: “If you’re going to hide behind the Fifth (Amendment), we can consider a subpoena and put you under oath if that is what you choose.”
Haddaway-Riccio repeated that she would not discuss the context of the meeting, though she did say no one from the DNR was present. Belton confirmed that he did not attend the meeting, but said “the personnel decisions are mine alone” at the department.
Pinsky told Haddaway-Riccio and Belton that Davis had submitted her last five years’ worth of personnel evaluations to the committee, and that there was no indication of problems. Two watermen, Billy Rice and Gibby Dean, also testified that Davis had been an excellent employee, often working after hours and on weekends to help watermen resolve issues.
Rice recalled how when low harvest several years ago brought talk of a moratorium, Davis responded that such a measure would not help the crab population and would only hurt watermen. She again stood by the watermen a few years ago when conservation groups wanted to change to a quota-based system that works for many other fisheries, but that watermen did not want for crabs.
“It seems to me that with 28 years, good evaluations, that you pull in your director, and direct him to fire Ms. Davis, six days after Gov. Hogan and Ms. Haddaway-Riccio have this meeting…six days later, you jump…and I’m trying to understand, did that happen by mental telepathy, that you fire a 28-year employee?” Pinsky asked the pair.
He continued: “Isn’t it true that you couldn’t give these watermen what they wanted, the 5-inch crab, so you gave them something else — Brenda Davis’ job?”
Haddaway-Riccio again said she would not comment on personnel issues.
But Hogan’s deputy chief of staff pointed out that the O’Malley administration, in its first three years, terminated 336 at-will employees, while the Hogan administration had terminated 84 in its two years.
Davis testified that her termination had a chilling effect on the managers who remain in her department and are trying to manage fisheries based on science. Colleagues, she said, have been asking to be demoted so they will not longer be in at-will positions where, like Davis, they can be fired and not given a reason.
“Nobody should be afraid to do their job. In fact, the future sustainability of the Bay depends on these people not being afraid to step up and do the right thing,” she said.
At the DNR, 164 employees are at will. Belton said he changed nine of those positions. At least five of those were in fisheries. In addition to Davis, Director Tom O’Connell was fired 18 months ago, and deputy fisheries staff Lynn Fegley and Gina Hunt were re-assigned, as was Mike Naylor, the former shellfish program manager. Watermen had complained about all of them.
In a column in the Maryland Watermen’s Association newsletter in May of 2015, after Naylor’s re-assignment, president Robert T. Brown said he had “many telephone calls and emails asking when the new administration will make the changes at the Department of Natural resources they promised to us.”
Belton said at the hearing that while the department listened to all constituencies while making decisions, the watermen were a particularly important group because he contended they had been “sidelined” during the previous administration.
“They were denied their rightful voice on decisions that matter greatly to them,” he said.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore city Democrat who is the daughter of a waterman, took umbrage at that statement, saying she and others in the General Assembly had made several concessions over the years to assist watermen.
Belton added that the discussion about the crab size could get “sporty.” Lower Chesapeake Bay crabbers wanted a smaller size, but many other crabbers want to keep the size as is.
Rice, chair of the Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission and a longtime crabber, said a bushel of the small crabs is worth about $20, while the larger crabs — 5.25 inches and larger — are worth between $100 and $150 a bushel. The Lower Bay crabbers like the smaller ones because they go to the picking houses, most of which are in Dorchester County.
Dean, the co-founder and former president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said the staff at DNR, including Davis and the others reassigned before her, should “be left alone to do their jobs.”
“Politics has no place in fisheries management. Let me repeat that, please. Politics has no place in fisheries management.”
Republican members of the committee seemed sympathetic to Davis’ predicament and agreed it seemed like she had done a good job, but reiterated that the job classification of “at will” means just that. A few said they didn’t understand what the crab size had to do with Davis’ termination.
Scott Todd, one waterman who attended the meeting with the governor, had previously told the Bay Journal that attendees had voiced frustration with Davis because she would not change the rule. He was invited to testify, but did not attend the hearing.
Many Republicans professed not to understand the purpose of the hearing. They said hearings weren’t held for other terminations in the O’Malley administration. Legislators could not recall another time that the joint committee convened to discuss a firing.
“In my estimation, I don’t see where anyone did anything wrong here. At will is at will, and it’s happened before, and it’s going to happen again,” said Gerald Clark, a Southern Maryland Republican.
Belton said at the hearing that any decisions about a crab size change would come after the results of the winter dredge survey, which counts the crabs in the water and predicts abundance levels. Those results won’t be available until mid-May.
It’s unclear what will happen now to Davis, who said she will be able to collect only 40 percent of her pension. Davis has a son who is a senior in college and a daughter who is a sophomore; her family plans and retirement, she said, included her working six more years.
Davis’ boss, Dave Blazer, did not testify at the hearing. Del. Pam Beidle expressed disappointment that the committee didn’t get to hear from Blazer. She said she was told he wasn’t permitted to come; Belton said he told Blazer he would represent the department.
“One thing I have learned in my 20 years in public office is that perception is important,” Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said. “I think the perception right now is not very good.”
Davis testified she did many things in her 28-year career; the one thing she did not do, she said, was make a policy decision. She implemented, but she did not decide. The members of the lower Eastern Shore delegation, she said, “made it no secret that they thought I was difficult to work with.” Still, she said, that should not be grounds for her termination.
“It’s highly unlikely that any decision is going to make everyone happy,” she said. “If we were to ignore science to make things easier, frankly, that would be irresponsible.”