Bay Journal

Top leaders at Maryland DNR leaving agency

Fisheries, Land Conservation, Public Affairs heads dismissed

  • By Rona Kobell on May 29, 2015

Four top leaders at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources were let go today, sending a combined 98 years of fisheries, land conservation and communications experience out the doors of the Tawes building, the department’s headquarters in Annapolis.

Deputy Secretary Frank Dawson, Assistant Secretary Kristin Saunders, Fisheries Director Tom O’Connell, and Communications Director Darlene Pisani are all leaving the agency, according to an internal email from the agency’s new secretary, Mark Belton, that the Bay Journal acquired.

Belton’s email said he “won't go into a long list of their respective achievements; what they've accomplished is significant and you are familiar with their efforts.”

Belton said he would name permanent replacements soon. In the meantime, he named Mark Hoffman acting deputy secretary; Emily Wilson Acting assistant secretary for land resources (Saunders’ area of expertise) and Kristen Peterson acting communications director. Dave Goshorn will assume fisheries director duties in addition to the job he already has as assistant secretary.

Peterson, who has been working at the agency for year and a half, said the agency does not comment on personnel matters.

The news follows the recent move of Mike Naylor, the agency’s point person on oyster restoration, to a position in the office of integrated policy and review. Watermen had complained about the oyster sanctuaries that Naylor managed, which were phenomenal successes in restoring populations, but took away large harvest areas from watermen and reduced their opportunities to make a living.

New administrations often like to put their own communications staff in place. Pisani has been in the job for close to two decades and was well-regarded for her design capabilities and her quick response to reporters’ needs.

Saunders had a more low-key presence, but under her leadership the department tightened up the criteria for how it acquired land, taking care to preserve properties that were most in danger.

Dru-Schmidt-Perkins, executive director for 1,000 Friends of Maryland, worked closely with Saunders on open-space issues.

“She was just incredibly knowledgeable about open space and land-preservation programs which are so critical to saving Maryland’s green space.”

Schmidt-Perkins has seen such staff purges before. Under the administration of Gov. Robert Erhlich, many senior leaders at DNR lost their jobs. Just as with the four who left today, Schmidt-Perkins said, their departure quickly revealed the loss in expertise and know-how that went with them.

“They have given so much to these issues,” Schmidt-Perkins said of the four employees. “That is what is so unfortunate, when you lose those years of dedication. You just kick out the knowledge, expertise and contacts. When that’s suddenly gone from an agency, it’s not helping it to work better and more smoothly.”

Dawson, with nearly three decades on the job, was a frequent presence at policy meetings in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Colleagues from other agencies praised his pragmatism as well as his passion. One noted how he personally took an interest in making sure trout were protected if a pipeline came into the Gunpowder River. His strong letter on behalf of the fish influenced a judge, who ruled in favor of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper and ordered the Maryland Department of the Environment to craft a stricter permit.

“Frank Dawson has always been able to work in the weeds and see the big picture, and he’s never been afraid to lead when the path was difficult,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “He is extremely good at working with people and putting people at ease. He’s always understood that government is a piece of the big picture. We simply would not have been able to negotiate the 2014 Chesapeake Bay agreement without his leadership.”

Of the four positions, O’Connell’s job seemed the most vulnerable. Environmental advocates have worried for months that the popular fisheries director would lose his job. Several told the Bay Journal that they wrote letters or called Belton on his behalf to say what a great leader O’Connell had been. The fisheries director position is often political, though, as it involves allocating resources - be they crabs, oysters or striped bass - among commercial, recreational and conservation interests.

A longtime DNR employee, O’Connell was the person in charge of the Environmental Impact Statement on Asian oysters during the Ehrlich administration, from 2002 to 2006. The study looked at whether Maryland and Virginia should introduce a reproducing Asian oyster into the Chesapeake Bay. After several years and several million dollars, the two states and the Corps of Engineers concluded that they should not.

O’Connell dove into the mission. Many people - scientists, economists, residents of other states and regulators - criticized the plan to introduce a new species. O’Connell never did. He let the science lead him.

Many within the agency saw the fisheries director position as O’Connell’s reward for sticking with a tough job. And the longer he did the job of fisheries director, the more fans he acquired - within the Tawes building and outside of it.

“He was the best state employee in the history of Maryland. I don’t know how else to put it. The guy stayed late, came in early every day, and he cared almost as much about his employees as he did for his own family. And I might add, he has four children of his own,” said Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association.

He added, “He’s the only guy, that in my job I pulled punches for. If I looked at an issue, and I knew we weren’t going to win, I would say, ‘what’s the point in beating up Tom?’ And his whole staff lived under that cloak.”

Under O’Connell, the fisheries program enjoyed a resurgence in both morale and resources. Naylor’s oyster sanctuaries earned praise from the scientific community, even as watermen didn’t like them. On the aquaculture side, O’Connell helped transform Maryland from a state where growing oysters was illegal in nearly every county to one with a robust aquaculture leasing program.

At the time of his departure, O’Connell was working hard with shellfish manager Karl Roscher to fix problems with the Baltimore office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been slow to sign off on permits and in some cases delayed businesses from getting started for more than a year.

Don Webster, a Maryland Sea Grant aquaculture specialist who chaired the Aquaculture Coordinating Council, noted that O’Connell took the time to attend many oyster meetings even though he had a lot of other duties.

“Tom was an excellent head of fisheries and brought a great deal of knowledge to oyster management and the development of aquaculture. I was pleased to see him become Fisheries Director and worked with him as we revised our archaic leasing program and started to attract both watermen and entrepreneurs to this progressive industry,” Webster said. “I have great respect for Tom and hope that he continues to be involved with Bay issues.”

Secretary Belton ended his email to staff saying, "Frank, Kristin, Darlene, and Tom leave with my personal gratitude for their tremendous service to Maryland in leading our organization, serving our six million stakeholders, and protecting our natural resources.  Please join me in wishing them 'Fair Winds and Following Seas'."

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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).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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