During the June 4 public hearing by the Kent County Commissioner on the county budget for Fiscal Year 2020, Grenville Whitman of Rock Hall and William Herb, a retired hydrologist who lives on Fairlee Creek, raised questions about the county’s donation to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. The draft budget includes a $17,000 donation to the Coalition, an amount matched by five other Shore counties, for a total of $85,000. Since 2013, the first year of the Coalition’s existence, the county has donated $159,000 to the Coalition. In addition to Kent, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, and Queen Anne’s counties are members of the Coalition. Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian is chairman of the Coalition.
The objective of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, according to its website, is “to pursue improvement to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner – through research, coordination, and advocacy.” It specifically identifies the reservoir of the Conowingo Dam, which is owned and operated by Exelon Corporation, as “the largest single point source of pollution to Bay waters.” The Conowingo Dam is located on the Susquehanna River just before it enters the Bay.
Herb, who testified first, said, “The Coalition wastes taxpayers’ money by pursuing a campaign against Exelon, and erroneously blames future contamination threats on the Conowingo Dam. The Coalition’s website identifies no staff or contract support with technical expertise. Members of the Coalition are public officials whose resumes demonstrate no scientific or engineering capability. Commissioners Jacob and Mason would be unwise to seek my advice on how to run a business. Commissioner Fithian would be equally unwise to ask me how to harvest oysters. The Commissioners should not unwisely get advice on complex hydrologic and environmental issues from those with no qualifications.”
He went on to note, “The Coalition purports to be in favor of a clean Chesapeake, but documents no successes in reducing even one ounce of contamination to the Bay. […] The Coalition’s budget for 2020 projects 78% for Legal, including lobbying, 11% for General Administration, and 11% for Communication, but not one cent for pollution reduction.”
Herb said, “All of the sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus that have entered the Bay in the past, or that will enter the Bay in the future via the Susquehanna River have their origins in Pennsylvania and New York, and not in the operation of the Conowingo Dam. If the Commissioners and the Coalition are really serious about protecting the Bay, they should seek to collect from these two upstream states, and not from a private entity, whose major environmental transgression seems to be having deep pockets.”
Finally, Herb asked that Fithian, as Chair of the Coalition, should recuse himself from any discussion, action, or vote regarding the Coalition to avoid a conflict of interest. He offered to present his technical analysis of the Conowingo Dam and the Bay to any or all of the commissioners.
Whitman referred to a letter he and Herb wrote to the commissioners on April 29, which made two requests: that the commissioners conduct a public hearing “to determine what actual, tangible, real benefits Kent County residents have received from their substantial investment so far;” and that Fithian recuse himself from any discussion and abstain from any vote on his group’s funding request. He went on to list the kinds of questions the commissioners should ask before continuing the funding: what benefits have Kent County residents received for their $159,000 donations since 2013? What are the Coalition’s three most notable accomplishments in that time? And have the Coalition’s records been audited after it has received nearly $1 million in public funding?
Whitman said, “Until these questions—and others—are put to the Coalition and the Coalition responds, this funding request has not been subjected to due diligence. I ask that this request be denied, and that $17,000 be re-directed to a program that directly benefits Kent County residents. The county school system comes to mind.”
Whitman also questioned the ethics of the commissioners in allocating county funds to a group chaired by one of their members. “Perhaps the county Ethics Commission should be invited to look into this arrangement and rule on it,” he said. He questioned the ethics of the county “doling out public money” to a group that lobbies against federal and state programs and policies. He said the Coalition was within its rights to so lobby, but for them to use public funding for the purpose was questionable.
The commissioners did not respond to either Herb or Whitman at the budget hearing. At their regular meeting Tuesday, June 11, the commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the FY2020 budget. All three commissioners took part in the vote.