According to Ehrlich

Governor discusses issues that affect Washington County

Governor discusses issues that affect Washington County

October 23, 2005|By TAMELA BAKER


At 4 p.m. Wednesday in the state capital, the sun was beginning to wane, office workers were anticipating the end of the day and the governor of Maryland was 90 minutes behind schedule.

The regular Board of Public Works meeting ran long, said Greg Massoni, deputy director of communications for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"And we had to reschedule some things from yesterday," Massoni added.

That's because on Tuesday, Ehrlich had taken the extraordinary measure of closing the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and partially closing the Fort McHenry Tunnel because of a terrorist threat.


But now, the governor was huddled with aides, signing off on yet another document. Glancing up at yet another reporter, perhaps warily at first, Maryland's first Republican governor in more than 30 years extended a hand and apologized for the delay.

Once inside his own office, Ehrlich, in shirt sleeves, khakis and a tie, began to warm. He pointed out a slightly camouflaged door in one wall. It led to a secret office, he said, attributing it to former Gov. Marvin Mandel's desire for a way to escape.

On Tuesday, Ehrlich had told the nation during a news conference that he had closed the tunnels because he was responsible for the security of one state. On Wednesday, he sat down for a half-hour to talk about one piece of it, and decisions made in Annapolis that affect people who live in Washington County.

Prisons: 'An unfolding process'

For months, Western Maryland legislators had been relaying complaints from correctional officers at state prisons in Washington and Allegany counties - concerns about staffing reductions, security issues and overall morale. Several meetings between the lawmakers and Ehrlich's staff had resulted in one major personnel change and promises of more positions.

"It's an unfolding process ... it's not static," Ehrlich said.

During a meeting with Herald-Mail reporters and editors in August, Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said allegations that Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown was down about 100 positions were not true - that it was more like 12 to 16. Corrections officers countered that while Saar was referring to her own reassessment of staffing needs, their figure tallied the number of staff reductions since 2002. Figures obtained from the Division of Corrections by The Herald-Mail show that MCI-H has 120 fewer positions now than in 2002. For the three prisons combined, the number is 224.

Ehrlich looked at those numbers Wednesday, and while defending Saar, he promised more positions were forthcoming.

"I have very high respect, and serious respect and sincere respect for people who do this for a living," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich's administration had inherited "an incredibly difficult fiscal situation," he said, that resulted in cuts in state employee positions. But now, "when people read about a multibillion-dollar surplus, they tend to react, and I don't blame them. I believe you'll see an increase with respect to this particular employee field this year."

But he emphatically defended the program some corrections officers have criticized as a drain on the corrections budget - Project RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment). Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown is one of two pilot sites for RESTART.

"I am a firm believer in this program and I am unapologetic in that respect," Ehrlich said. "And no one should, one, fear for their job, or two, fear that RESTART would be successful. And quite frankly, RESTART is a function of something that nobody knows better than guards - the professionals who protect us - and that recognition is that what we've done in the past hasn't worked very well. And that's irrefutable given the recidivism rate in our adult system, as you know."

Development developments

Ehrlich also was aware of the pressure development is beginning to place on outlying counties - a result, he said, of Maryland's success.

Ehrlich took a subtle swipe at opponents of his three-year quest to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland, which he repeatedly has insisted is necessary to save the racing industry - and consequently, horse farms and related agriculture - in the state.

"We do have programs that mitigate some issues that deal with the realities of suburban sprawl related to growth, like Community Legacy, Rural Legacy, Brownfields, programs that we've funded, that we've believed in, and funded and implemented, and run around the state and market, to deal with some of the decisions that have been made," he said. "I run around the state and talk about horse farms and agriculture and preserving agriculture and heritage, and having people here not listening to the pleas of the industry and the farmers and not being helpful in that regard, either."

A festering wound

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