Handgun Permit Board Frequently Overrules State Police; Vote on Nominees Delayed

The Maryland Senate committee charged with vetting gubernatorial nominees has questions about the Handgun Permit Review Board – again.

Members of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee raised questions not about the qualifications of Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s three nominees to the board, but about how the board – which considers appeals of Maryland State Police decisions on concealed carry permits – reaches its decisions.

Since December 2017, the board has reversed or modified the decisions of the Maryland State Police 222 times and sustained the agency’s decision just 37 times, according to an annual report recently delivered to the General Assembly.

Of the Maryland State Police decisions changed by the board, 77 decisions were reversed, while 145 were modified in some way.

The annual report on the board’s decision-making was required by legislation passed by the General Assembly last year. In 2018, lawmakers had sought to abolish the board and move appeals to the Office of Administrative Hearings, but the bill was heavily amended to maintain the board and make tweaks to the way it functions.

On Monday night, some senators expressed continued concern about what criteria the board members use in overturning the Maryland State Police decisions and about how often hearings are conducted out of the public eye.

Nominees Bryan Yukio Fischer, Carol O. Loveless and John H. Michel are all currently serving on the board as recess appointees.

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) pressed the nominees about what criteria they use to overturn State Police decisions and how they decide to close hearings to the public.

Loveless said closing some hearings is appropriate without providing a public justification because the requests alone can divulge an appellant’s concerns about safety and privacy, including to shield public knowledge of federal government security clearances. She and the other nominees also acknowledged that hearings are closed whenever an applicant requests to be heard in private.

Michel said anyone with an existing permit is entitled to a closed session under state law. He also said that the vast majority of hearings the board undertakes are for reconsiderations of restrictions placed on permits that were issued by the Maryland State Police, such as broadening the definition of when a permitholder is “conducting business” if their permit is work-related.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) asked whether the board had written policies on how to decide whether someone should be granted a permit and questioned the practice of a civilian board overruling decisions by the Maryland State Police.

Ferguson made a motion to table a vote on the nominees for one week until the committee can get more answers about the board’s decision-making processes, including whether it is bound by the same criteria about whether to grant permits that are included in the Maryland State Police Standard Operating Procedures.

The motion was met with some pushback from Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore), who argued that the nominees should not be held up for concerns about the way the board was established in state law.

“Everything that was asked, it always came back to the same thing – that this is what’s in statute, this is law, they’re following the law. …It’s up to us as a legislature to change that,” Jennings said. “But until then, we have to have these board members. These are highly qualified people.”

Ferguson said he doesn’t want to derail the nominations but does want clarity on how the board reaches decisions before moving forward. The committee is set to discuss the nominations again next week.

Kelley said the perennial concerns about the board should be the focus of a study group during the next interim.

“I think it is a real murky area,” she said. “And I think the murk is in the law.”

The Handgun Permit Review Board has a robust case load and generally meets at least twice each month. There were 622 appeals filed between December 2017 and November 2018, according to the board’s report to lawmakers. Of those, 100 applicants withdrew, 155 hearings have been held and 367 appeals remain open.

Other moves

The committee voted preliminarily to recommend confirmation of Kelly M. Schulz as secretary of the Department of Commerce.

Schulz has been serving in the position since January, replacing R. Michael Gill, who left the department to return to private business. Schulz, a former state lawmaker, had served since 2015 as secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

She was briefly questioned by Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard, Baltimore County) about the role of the governor’s appointments office in the hiring process for upper-level positions in state agencies. Lam has been expressing concern about potential political considerations in state hiring since he received a memo about hiring practices at the Department of Health last year; the governor’s office has said the appointments office provides basic assistance in background checks when requested.

Schulz said over the course of her last four years at the Department of Labor, she was never directed to hire or fire any person in her agency and she doesn’t foresee that being an issue in the Department of Commerce either.

The committee also peppered the nominees for State Board of Education about their views on local versus state decision-making on topics like turning around struggling schools. All of the nominees – Vermelle D. Greene, Jean C. Halle and Warner I. Sumpter – said the state board must take local concerns into consideration whenever enacting statewide policies.

Among the other nominees recommended for approval Monday night were Mark A. Gardner, who was nominated by Hogan as the labor representative on the Maryland State Labor Relations Board.

Earlier this year, lawmakers complained that Hogan had not put forward a nominee for the labor representative on the board since 2016.

Gardner was introduced to the executive nominations committee on Monday night by Ferguson. Gardner is retired from the U.S. Postal Service and said he has worked in all levels of the labor movement, from shop steward to his highest role as former National Secretary-Treasurer of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union.

“Welcome,” Kelley told Gardner. “We’re glad that finally that position that belongs to labor has been filled. …It’s important that it be filled.”

A report on the full list of nominees will be given to the Senate later this week.

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