June 25, 2013

Sources describe a department under duress

Scrutiny intensifies, transparency falters, and there's new pressure, DEP insiders say, to tell 'one side of the story: the client's side.'

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The Office of the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is housed in this State House Station building in Augusta. Sources within the department and others who have since left say policy changes under the leadership of former lobbyist Patricia Aho have stifled interaction with the public and limited the role of in-house experts in crafting policy. In addition, at least 85 of the department’s 400 staffers have left since Gov. Paul LePage took office at the beginning of 2011.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Patricia Aho

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"We are definitely involving the technical staff in the development of the substance," added Melanie Loyzim, director of the DEP's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. "The policy people have the knowledge of how to put together the reports."

Many staffers who were interviewed said they believed certain individuals had been targeted for elimination, with their every move watched and their emails and phone records placed under regular surveillance, and subject to intimidating interactions with LePage's political appointees. Several said such targeted employees had been yelled at in front of co-workers by a senior manager, and subject to harassment and bullying.

The Maine Sunday Telegram sought the department's response to these allegations, but Aho and the department spokeswoman refused to be interviewed.

"I had never seen or experienced the level of aggression against personnel that I experienced myself and others experienced," says Kevin Nelson, a 31-year veteran of the department who resigned from his position in the commissioner's office in January 2012. He says that after LePage took office, his new supervisor immediately declared all of his work -- which had previously been acceptable -- to be unsatisfactory. He was threatened with demotion and relocation. "I just felt the administration didn't want me around."

"It's like the Khmer Rouge," said another current staffer. "Anyone with any knowledge is eliminated or worked to death."

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday that numerous DEP employees had reached out to him relating similar information. "They said staff is being muzzled, that they aren't allowed to speak at public meetings, that there's outright harassment of longtime employees. It's made the DEP an outright hostile work environment," he said. "For people to be afraid of any sort of retaliation for doing their work and having it be based on science and best practices, that's a very difficult and dangerous situation for employees. It's bad for public policy, and it's bad for their well-being."

• THE NOTEWORTHY EXODUS: 'THAT KNOWLEDGE BASE ... THAT'S GONE.'

One result of the atmosphere has been a sizable exodus of some of the department's most experienced staff members. A database of personnel changes compiled by concerned staffers shows at least 85 of the department's approximately 400 staffers have left since LePage took office, taking with them more than 1,200 years of combined experience.

While some of the department's graying work force may have retired anyway, many are said to have left under duress. Current and former staff members say that while there is always turnover from year to year and administration to administration, this time the losses are more severe, nearly double the rate under the Baldacci administration, according to the concerned staffers' data.

"That knowledge base that's been lost over the past couple of years -- a huge institutional knowledge of what DEP has done in the past and what's important to Maine from a natural resource perspective -- that's gone and we're never going to get that back," says Cassida. "It's inevitable that some of that knowledge was going to leave because they were reaching retirement, but for many other individuals they weren't even close to retirement."

Aho said in February that the departures were largely based on retirement incentives and an aging work force. "I know there will always be questions about low staff morale; I don't know how to respond to that," she said. "I feel staff are doing a great job with the work they do and that we're continuing to make sure that they understand the importance of that work here in the state of Maine."

• THE ABRIDGED SITE: PUBLIC DATA HAS BEEN 'DRAMATICALLY REDUCED'

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