Bay Journal

Verna Harrison, longtime Bay champion, is retiring but not quitting

  • By Rona Kobell on September 19, 2014
Verna Harrison (Campbell Foundation)

Verna Harrison, the first director of the Campbell Foundation, a major supporter of Chesapeake region environmental work, and formerly a longtime Maryland environmental official, is retiring at the end of this year.

Harrison, who has directed the environmentally focused foundation since 2003, said she expected she would still be engaged in Chesapeake Bay issues, but at a less-intense pace than she had been running for the last few decades so that she could spend more time with her family.

“As one of my friends at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently stated, I plan to follow the advice of a river: slow down and meander, stay current and go with the flow,” she said in a foundation press release.

Few who know Harrison well are surprised that, even in retirement, she is determined to work on the issues closest to her heart.

“I would put her in the top five of people who have had a passion, from childhood, for the Bay and its restoration,” said John Griffin, chief of staff for Gov. Martin O’Malley and a former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, where he worked closely with Harrison. “She’s very selfless. She drives herself and everyone else hard to solve the Bay’s problems. She has a passion, she has a commitment, she has a know-how.”

A Bethesda native, Harrison graduated from the University of Maryland with highest honors, and then headed to Annapolis to work for the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. She was then assistant legislative officer for Harry Hughes, the Maryland governor responsible for passing some of the most sweeping environmental protections — including the Critical Areas Law.

When Torrey Brown became secretary of natural resources in 1983, he brought Harrison to be his assistant secretary, working closely with Griffin, who was then deputy.

Harrison stayed at the department for 20 years, immersing herself in critical Bay health issues — pollution from septic tanks, nutrient runoff, a lack of funds for land preservation.

Harrison served in the job she loved for 20 years until the election of Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the first Republican to hold the office since Spiro Agnew won it in 1966. On the day of Ehrlich’s swearing-in ceremony, Harrison was among 30 high-level state-employees told to clear out their desks immediately. She and three other women in top jobs at the DNR did as asked, unsure of what was next.

But Keith Campbell made sure Harrison was not unemployed for long. The Baltimore investment manager had set up his foundation in 1998, giving away several million dollars a year to Chesapeake Bay-related causes. But Campbell didn’t just give away the money. An avid surfer with a quick mind and keen interest in restoration, he peppered grantees with questions and arranged meetings with policy makers to find out why the cleanup wasn’t moving along fast enough.

Campbell wanted someone with the expertise help make those decisions — to find the best ideas, make sure they got the funding they needed and push them to where they needed to be. He heard Harrison was free and hired her.

They were a good match, the indefatigable futures trader  with the questions and the industrious policy maker who knew where to find the answers. Unlike many foundations, they focused largely on environmental causes — here in the Chesapeake Bay, and in San Francisco, where Campbell’s daughter Samantha, who is president of the foundation, lives and runs the foundation’s Pacific efforts.

The foundation was not afraid to fund controversial topics, such as litigation, or simply unsexy ones, like a campaign to reduce septic tanks in developed areas or supporting proponents for a stormwater fee.

About a decade ago, the foundation began funding small Riverkeeper organizations that patrolled local waterways and reported pollution. Those groups pressured the state to tighten its permitting process for stormwater and agricultural runoff and fund innovative solutions to decades-old environmental problems, such as ditch management structures to reduce runoff.

Campbell’s presence in Maryland, and Harrison’s role in the funding choices, was a “game-changer” in Maryland, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a smart growth organization. Schmidt-Perkins’ group has received multiple grants from Campbell over the years.

(Chesapeake Media Service, which publishes the Bay Journal, has also received generous funding from Campbell.)

Schmidt-Perkins said acquiring funding for land-use work is difficult — not every funder wants to talk about toilets and manure. But, she said, Harrison’s engagement and Campbell’s interest paid off in a big way in 2012. The legislature passed bills to increase the Bay Restoration Fund, set up stormwater utility fees in the state’s largest jurisdictions and reduce the number of major subdivisions built on septic systems. Campbell support helped pay for messaging, polling, media work and the coalition-building to bring together small environmental groups.

“We were told we wouldn’t get any of these things. We got all of them, and that was because of the funding,” she said. “With Verna, you get not only a deep Rolodex, but a deep understanding of how all these different aspects play, where all the gaps are, what needs to change…The winning combination of Keith Campbell and Verna Harrison can’t be overstated.”

Since Harrison started at Campbell, the foundation has awarded more than $67 million in grants. In addition to the Riverkeepers and land-use policies, it has also focused on leveraging the power of small groups and making them stronger. Campbell helped form the Choose Clean Water Coalition as well as Blue Water Baltimore, a group of five small watershed organizations now under one roof.

In a statement, Campbell Foundation President Samantha Campbell acknowledged the accomplishments of Harrison and her small but dedicated staff, which includes Pat Stuntz, the former Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and Julie Hester, who worked with the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“Thanks to Verna and her team, the Bay’s future is brighter, organizations throughout the watershed are better organized and prepared to meet the challenges of Bay restoration and protection, and our foundation’s mission has been immeasurably advanced,” Samantha Campbell said.

Keith Campbell called Harrison “inimitable…innovative, responsive and persistent.”

He added, “It’s stunning and so fortunate that our foundation was able to benefit from her knowledge, experience and passion.”

Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale, who works with Harrison on the Bay Program’s Citizen Advisory Committee, said he understands why his longtime colleague needs a respite from the exhausting pace of runing a foundation dedicated to Bay restoration. But he, like many others, doesn’t think Harrison will rest for long.

“She is indefatigable. This is in her blood, and she isn’t going to just walk away from it. She will find a way to continue to contribute to the restoration effort. I am convinced of that,” he said. “And we will welcome her contributions in whatever form she chooses to offer them.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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