ANNAPOLIS – Just a dozen individuals spoke Thursday at the only announced public hearing of a state commission charged with restructuring large portions of state government.
The low turnout and a lack of questions from commission members surprised some attendees, but the group’s chairman, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, said he had expected even fewer witnesses.
The commission will schedule another hearing after its preliminary report to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in mid-November, Mandel said.
“Perhaps if the commission had made more effort to draw in public opinion, there would have been more testifiers,” said Sue Esty, who spoke on behalf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92.
Mandel has eschewed publicity for the group since Ehrlich created it in August with orders to produce a streamlining plan for Maryland’s 50-some independent agencies.
Commission members’ silence Thursday also made it difficult to read their reactions, Esty said.
But Mandel countered that commission members have written testimony and can discuss issues with speakers after the hearing. Prolonged questioning, he said, could have cut into other speakers’ time.
Speakers had to notify the commission by noon Oct. 20. About 20 registered, but some didn’t show up, said David Treasure, a commission staff member.
Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation offered the only statement on the environment, a subject Mandel has called one of the “most sensitive” areas the commission is examining.
Coble opposed merging the Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources, an idea Ehrlich’s administration has floated for months. She also proposed a new Cabinet-level position to “oversee all bay clean-up efforts.”
Among others who spoke, three called for moving the Maryland Historical Trust out of the Department of Housing and Community Development, two praised the Maryland Higher Education Commission and two others described problems they’d encountered with Child Protective Services.
Consolidation of purchasing procedures, personnel departments and services for the blind also was discussed.
The meeting began precisely at 9 a.m. and ended about an hour later. Mandel had worried Thursday’s hearing might last until 1 p.m.
“It was pretty efficient,” said Lynn Gangone, who spoke to the commission for the Maryland Independent College and University Association.
But the lack of questions from commission members seemed odd to Jan Schmidt, who spoke for Advocates for Children and Youth. Some groups tend to eliminate questions if public hearings stretch late into the evening, she said, but “it’s unusual first thing in the morning.”
“I take them on their word that they will contact us if they would like to have more information,” Gangone said. She said she “didn’t find anything out of line” with the way the commission conducted the meeting.
Mandel and Ehrlich have been coy about the commission’s priorities, which include efficiency, saving money and reinforcing executive authority.
“It’s about making the operation of government more efficient and more responsive to the public and to public needs,” Mandel said Thursday.
But making independent agencies more accountable to the governor is also a priority, Mandel said.
Some independent agencies, Mandel said, “periodically don’t report to the governor. Not because they’re not supposed to, because they just don’t do it.”
The commission will meet Nov. 6 before presenting a preliminary report to Ehrlich later that month. No date has been set for a final public hearing that will come before the commission’s final Dec. 8 report.
“We’re going to get the preliminary report,” Mandel said, “give people the opportunity to comment on it, and then finalize it.”