HARRISBURG - When is a hiring freeze not a hiring freeze?

When you are a deposed state representative who needs a job and you know the governor really well.

Gov. Rendell made an exception this week to his administration's four-month-old hiring freeze to create a $95,002-a-year bureaucratic post and fill it with a fellow Democrat, former State Rep. Dan Surra.

The 18-year representative from Elk County began his new job - senior adviser to Michael DiBerardinis, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - on Monday.

In his new role, Surra will focus on the administration's Pennsylvania Wilds initiative to increase ecotourism and development in a 12-county region in the northern part of the state.

Critics quickly blasted Rendell for talking out of both sides of his mouth - trying, they say, to make political points with a fiscally prudent hiring freeze only to give an ally a high-paying job.

Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of RockTheCapital.org, said it showed Rendell was suffering from a "brain freeze."

"Is the governor insane? This hire shows how disconnected he is from reality," Epstein said. "This hire is a stupefying, mind-numbing example of just how corroded our political system is."

Attempts to reach Surra for comment were unsuccessful yesterday.

Chuck Ardo, Rendell's spokesman, acknowledged that Surra's new job didn't exist before and that Surra was the only one interviewed for it. But he insisted that it was not a make-work post for an out-of-work pol.

Surra is a lifelong outdoorsman, has years of experience in the legislature, and possesses an intimate knowledge of state regulations and economic development, Ardo said.

Part of Surra's duties will be to advise the administration on drilling in the Marcellus shale natural-gas reserve across the northern and central part of the state.

Ardo called Surra a "perfect fit" to help protect that part of the state ecologically, "while at the same time maximizing our ability to develop its gas potential."

Rendell announced his administration-wide hiring freeze in mid-September as a way to help reduce government spending when the state's economy was suffering from the worst downturn in decades.

Since then, 11 job vacancies at DCNR - from rangers to geologists - have gone unfilled, spokeswoman Christina Novak said.

In November, voters in Elk and Clearfield Counties booted Surra from office. His term ended Nov. 30, but he immediately found temporary employment as his former Democratic colleagues in the state House put him on a one-month consulting contract.

Surra's new job at DCNR pays about 9 percent more than the $86,847 he made as House majority caucus administrator when he left office.

In an interview last month when he was wrapping up his contract with House Democrats, Surra acknowledged he was hopeful that Rendell could arrange a job for him despite the hiring freeze.

"It's not a good time to be looking for work," Surra said then.

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.