Sunday, April 25, 2004

Rep. Rick Boucher, Virginia Democrat, and Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, have asked Congress to further protect 40,000 acres of Jefferson National Forest by creating several wilderness or national scenic areas.

The Virginia Ridge and Valley Wilderness and National Scenic Area Act of 2004 would create four new wilderness areas and two new national scenic areas and would expand five existing wilderness areas in portions of Craig, Grayson, Giles, Lee, Montgomery and Smyth counties.

The protected regions are remote and already unsuitable for logging, said Elizabeth Murray of the Virginia Wilderness Committee, a Charlottesville-based group that helped to prepare the legislation.

The “wilderness” designation would keep the land off-limits to motorized traffic and equipment. However, visitors still would be able to hunt, fish, camp and do other recreational activities. A “national scenic area” designation would limit motorized traffic.

Political roast

Most Virginia lawmakers were not in attendance, but their state budget deadlock in Richmond was not far from the minds of those attending Southside Virginia’s largest political festival Wednesday.

It was on the lips of the Shad Planking’s featured speaker, Larry J. Sabato, who referred to the General Assembly as “the Flat Earth Society.”

The gathering in Wakefield broke with tradition this year and gave its vaunted speaker’s spot to a non-politician: Mr. Sabato, a commentator and University of Virginia political scientist.

Mr. Sabato, mixing humor with commentary, said “the last sad 100 days in Richmond” resemble more “The Jerry Springer Show” than an assembly that used to pride itself on its civility.

Thursday marked the 100th day of a scheduled 60-day session.

Mr. Sabato blamed the legislature’s inability to reach a budget compromise on redistricting. He said lawmakers are in such safe districts that candidates do not have to answer to the electorate.

A nonpartisan redistricting system would make Virginia’s politics more competitive and “prevent more of these horrible legislative deadlocks that threaten to embarrass our justifiably proud state again and again,” he said.

But if Mr. Sabato was critical of the assembly’s budget impasse, many in the crowd supported it.

“Whatever it takes that we don’t get to the point where we will have to raise taxes some more,” said Bob Johnson of Newport News.

Holt Livesay of Surry agreed, praising the House of Delegates for holding out so long against a tax increase.

But another observer, who declined to be identified, said the Republican legislators have embarrassed themselves. “They have taken a doomed Tim Kaine candidacy and made it into a horse race,” he said.

The lieutenant governor is likely to be the Democratic nominee for governor facing Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the likely Republican nominee.

The annual gathering, at which shad is nailed to planks and cooked for hours over an open fire, is sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritan Club. Proceeds go to local charities.

Prized porker

A government watchdog group that tracks wasteful spending bestowed a dubious honor upon D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams last week, naming him “Porker of the Month” for his plans to use public funds to build a $340 million baseball stadium.

“This plan combines two long-standing American pastimes: baseball and government waste,” said Citizens Against Government Waste. “Mayor Williams is pitching taxpayers everywhere a high inside fastball.”

The Washington Times reported last week that according to the nonprofit group’s annual “Pig Book,” which tracks pork-barrel projects, the District reaped $181 million in pork projects from the federal government — third most in the country even without voting representation in Congress.

The group said the plan to levy a tax on businesses to help pay for the ballpark makes “zero economic sense” and “punishes some businesses so that others can thrive.”

It said spending on the stadium would only make the District — “already a tax parasite on the rest of the nation” — more reliant on Congress for cash.

It also criticized Mr. Williams for his declaration said this month that he would not attend Baltimore Orioles games to protest the lack of a team in Washington. The group said that puts him in the running for “Crybaby of the Year.”

Aiming at Wayne

Democratic central committees in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District plan to advertise for candidates to run against Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in the November general election.

Nominee Ann Tamlyn beat Kostas Alexakis of Grasonville, Harry Sampson of Chesapeake City, and Steven Eastaugh of Berlin in the March 2 primary. However, she recently withdrew from the race for health reasons.

Anyone who is at least 25 years old and a resident of the congressional district and has been a U.S. citizen for seven years is eligible to run for the nomination.

Each of the 12 committees in the district will pick a candidate to support and central committee members will select the new candidate May 22.

The first district includes all nine Eastern Shore counties and parts of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Jury pay scandal

Authorities in Salisbury, Md., are poised to file criminal charges against former Wicomico County Jury Commissioner Gay Hommel.

After reviewing the evidence in the suspected theft of $300,000 in public funds, a deputy in the state Attorney General’s Office said felony theft charges would be recommended for Miss Hommel.

The office informed Miss Hommel of that conclusion in a letter obtained by the Salisbury Daily Times.

Miss Hommel left her job last summer after 14 years. Authorities learned funds were missing from a bank account that is used to pay jurors and purchase court supplies.

Miss Hommel had access to that account.

Her attorney says Miss Hommel recently won unemployment benefits from the county, arguing that is proof there is no case against her.

Firings questioned

After five high-ranking staffers were fired earlier this month, members of the Maryland Public Service Commission are questioning the motives and the authority of the regulatory agency’s chairman.

Commission members wondering whether Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler had the legal authority to fire the agency’s chief hearing examiner, chief engineer, accounting investigations director, manager of external relations and public information officer.

The Public Service Commission regulates Maryland’s power and telephone companies.

Mr. Schisler, a Republican, is being questioned by four members who were appointed by the previous governor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat. Three of those commissioners — Harold D. Williams, Gail C. McDonald and J. Joseph Curran III — said last week they may ask Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to intervene.

“It does not appear to me that this was handled properly,” said Mr. Williams, who partially blames ambiguity in state law.

However, the commission’s general counsel, Susan S. Miller, said Mr. Schisler was within his rights.

“I believe when it comes to hiring and firing, the authority rests with the chairman,” Miss Miller said.

State lawmakers said they plan to call Mr. Schisler before a specially convened legislative committee as soon as this summer to ask why he fired longtime staff members.

Each of the five employees was handed a three-paragraph memorandum, dated April 15 and initialed by Mr. Schisler, saying they were terminated and should not report to work the next day.

Education panel

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has named three delegates to a Maryland Higher Education Commission planning committee that will update the state’s strategic plan for higher education.

The committee’s first public meeting is set for tomorrow at the commission headquarters in Annapolis.

The appointees are Frank S. Turner, Howard County Democrat; James E. Proctor Jr., Calvert County Democrat; and David G. Boschert, Anne Arundel County Republican.

• Matthew Cella contributed to this column, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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