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Lawmakers move to reboot the Patuxent River Commission

fRED tUTMAN.jpg
Ben Israel/Audubon Naturalist Society
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Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman

The Patuxent River Commission, created in 1980 by the General Assembly, is the only body in Maryland charged with monitoring clean-up efforts on a single waterway. And it’s done that without much notice ever since. That is, until Gov. Larry Hogan failed to re-appoint the Patuxent Riverkeeper and others when their terms expired.

Environmental advocates were angered and lawmakers are striking back with measures to undo what the governor did.

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, and a member of the commission for 23 years, was among those who received a letter from Hogan in November informing them, without explanation, they were not being re-appointed. And that set off Sen. Paul Pinsky, chair of the Senate’s environment committee.

The Prince George’s Democrat said he was “offended” when he learned Tutman, who had been “a consistent voice advocating for the river in several roles,” was “dumped unceremoniously.”

“So I put in a bill to take care of that.”

The bill, and a companion bill in the House of Delegates, would make the Patuxent Riverkeeper a permanent, voting member of the commission.

But since he filed the bill, Pinsky says, he’s looked at the makeup of the commission and decided to make some more changes. Among them would be adding a permanent seat for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“They've been on it, but they're not guaranteed a seat,” he said. “You know, I really feel that's like the institution of the environment for the state of Maryland. And so I think they should probably have a permanent seat.”

It’s one of a number of changes he said should take place.

Tutman, whose job as the riverkeeper is to be an advocate for health of the longest river completely within Maryland’s boundaries, says the bill shouldn’t be about him, but the commission itself.

“We need to expand this commission and deal with some structural issues within the commission itself,” he said. “So then it's freed from the political influence that has derailed its true purpose.”

Tutman and Barbara Sollner-Webb, who also lost her position, say they were removed because of their objections to proposed developments near the headwaters of the river in Howard County. They were told, he says, they couldn’t, as commission members, testify on local land use and development issues.

“In this administration, suddenly, we can't talk about development,” he said “What have we been doing for the last 20 some years, except talking about the issues that affect the river, including development?”

Sollner-Webb, a board member of the Prince George’s County chapter of the Sierra Club who had been on the commission for 18 years, blamed Planning Secretary Robert McCord, who she said is more interested in future development than environmental concerns.

“The long-term interests of the Patuxent River are very at odds with the long term interests of the Department of Planning,” she argued.

McCord said in a statement that after “extensive discussions” with his staff he decided the commission “was due for fresh ideas and new perspectives.”

Sollner-Webb called that “scary.”

“The perspective of the Patuxent River Commission is to preserve and enhance the river,” she said. “So, if you want a new perspective, you don't like that perspective anymore for the Patuxent River Commission? What are we saying here?”

Tutman wondered what “new perspectives” McCord had in mind.

The Hogan administration wants the commission “talking about anything about this river, except private land use, exactly the urban sources of degradation of this river,” he said. “That has been true for 50 years. It's nonpoint source pollution.”

They’ve done what they can to upgrade sewage treatment plants, he said. There’s nothing else to talk about except growth in the watershed.

Hogan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The House environment and transportation committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Pinsky’s committee is to hold its hearing Thursday.