ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday called for a Senate vote on his planning secretary nominee, but senators continue to scrutinize how she ran the state’s planning office as an interim appointee the last eight months.
New Market resident Wendi Peters faced a number of questions during a hearing before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee last month, and committee members continue to receive feedback on her nomination.
Messages to the committee in recent weeks have detailed low morale and overmanagement in the office, along with complaints that the state’s previous planning priorities have been put on the back burner.
Hogan said at a Thursday press conference that he felt Peters was treated unfairly during the hearing. Other Republican lawmakers have insinuated their belief that Peters has been treated more harshly by the nominations committee because she’s a woman.
“Our planning secretary got pretty roughed up, I think, in an unfair way in the hearing a week or so ago and hasn’t been voted on,” Hogan said.
A vote on Peters’ nomination was expected Monday of this week, but the committee is holding off on making a recommendation to the full Senate.
“We’re still gathering information and doing our due diligence. We’ve had some conversations as part of the committee, but there have been follow-up questions that we’ve been looking through,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore city, the committee chairman. “We’re trying to make sure we fulfill our constitutional obligation of advising and consenting.”
Concerns coming in
In a nomination hearing on Feb. 27, Peters faced many questions about her management of the state’s Department of Planning.
Senators asked her about new policies that laid out office dress code and cubicle cleanliness requirements, in addition to more substantive questions about the department’s commitment to the state’s planning priorities, employee morale and staffing levels.
Before and after the hearing, people sent messages to senators encouraging them to vote against Peters’ nomination.
One came from a former employee who reported working under multiple governors, including Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr.
“While there were ups and downs during my tenure, nothing comes close to what I have heard about since the Hogan administration,” the former employee wrote. “... The stories are real — the place has been gutted, smart growth has been turned on its head, almost all the quality staff has bailed out, been fired or retired, the place is run almost like a military camp with no respect for professionals, staff has been treated like dirt, morale is in the dumper. It’s almost heart breaking.”
Committee members have also received complaints from employees about computer monitoring software installed on employees’ computers.
In August, an assistant secretary in the department sent a message notifying employees after monitoring software had been installed. The email said there was no intent to monitor employees’ “every click,” but to determine the amount of bandwidth needed for the agency’s sophisticated programs and applications during a technology transition.
But a message to committee members said the technology used couldn’t record bandwidth and would take screenshots of employees’ computers.
Many of the issues sent in writing to committee members came up during the hearing.
Committee members expressed concern over the reported departures of nearly 20 employees, including some who worked for the department for several years. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said people had been “forced out” during Peters’ tenure.
But Peters said in the committee hearing that the number of departures was lower. She said some employees decided to leave after a co-worker faced a serious illness, choosing to step away from work in favor of early retirement or less stress.
In one email to committee members, someone described the office atmosphere as “oppressive” and said Peters’ explanation of the departures was not accurate.
Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Thursday that nine employees have left the department under Peters’ tenure and all but one were voluntary resignations or retirements.
Chasse also commented on the agency’s computer monitoring policy.
“As do numerous public and private employers, the department instituted a policy to maximize the amount of productive time spent on agency assigned computers and ensure Maryland taxpayer dollars are being used as efficiently and effectively as possible,” she said.
Two calls to Peters’ cellphone since the executive nominations hearing have not been returned.
Calls for a vote
Peters was appointed to the Cabinet-level secretary position on July 6 to replace her predecessor, David Craig. She previously served as the department’s deputy secretary.
In introducing Peters to the Executive Nominations Committee last month, Frederick County Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, outlined her history on Mount Airy’s Board of Appeals and Planning Commission and Town Council, as well as her work as the town’s zoning administrator and economic development liaison. Hough passed along a package of recommendation letters to committee members.
“I believe that she deserves an up or down vote and I believe that she should be recommended,” Hough said this week after questions of Peters’ nomination reached the Senate floor. “But at the minimum, she deserves an up or down vote.”
Sen. Gail Bates, a Republican who represents Carroll and Howard counties, stood up on the Senate floor on Tuesday to express concern that the committee had not yet voted on Peters’ nomination.
“I would like to recognize Wendi Peters as an exceptional woman in the state of Maryland. And I really hope and pray that our executive [nominations committee] will be able to make it official and appoint her to the position as director of planning,” Bates said.
Bates referred to concerns swirling in Republican circles that Peters is being treated differently because she’s a woman. When Craig was nominated in 2015, his committee hearing was a hair over two minutes long; Peters fielded questions from the committee for 35 minutes.
“Some people might say there could be a double standard in the way the questions were asked,” Bates said. “I don’t believe this. This is the Senate of Maryland and I believe we treat people fairly, but I’m saying some people might say it.”
Ferguson disputed that characterization.
“I find it really disappointing that that’s the suggestion that’s being made. I think we have been very fair in our assessment of all nominees who have appeared before us,” Ferguson said.
He said in past years, even when he’s disagreed with Hogan’s nominees on policy, he has considered their leadership capacity and expertise in their field, ultimately supporting nominations.
“When questions arise, it’s our obligation to review those questions and ensure that the people of Maryland have the most talented and qualified leaders for their state departments,” Ferguson said.
The committee has not yet confirmed when a vote on Peters will be held.