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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Accumulated knowledge has also disappeared from the department's website, following a December 2011 redesign spearheaded by DePoy-Warren.

The website, Aho later boasted to legislators, once had more than 5,000 Web pages but was "reduced by 80 percent for better search results and usability." Tens of thousands of pages of reports and technical information vanished from the Web overnight, including the state's official climate change report, a database of boat pump-out facilities used by mariners and detailed water quality data used by federal and academic researchers.

"The DEP staff used to use the website to refer the business community to technical documents -- it was like a reference library," said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "The new site has created dead ends, eliminated from the public record many items that were there, and made life much more difficult for DEP staff," who have to manually locate many documents that were once available at a mouse click.

"I don't know if it's intentional, but it's dramatically reduced the amount of public information available to business and the public," Didisheim added.

Aho says the goal was to remove large amounts of material to allow what remained to be more easily found through the website's search bar. "We removed information that had not been accessed for some time," Aho said in a late February interview with the Telegram, adding that she wanted the most sought-after documents to be easy to find. "We received thank-yous from people for making our website more usable and easy to navigate."

"When you have a lot of stuff on your desk, it can be hard to find things," added DePoy-Warren. "Anything that was getting less than 40 hits a month was pulled from the site."

"I don't think that decreasing the number of pages that people are visiting decreases transparency," she added.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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