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

Published June 16, 2013

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

Patricia Aho

Related headlines

AUGUSTA - Every change of administration brings a change in priorities, and in early 2011 staffers within the Department of Environmental Protection fully expected Gov. Paul LePage to direct them to reduce regulatory burdens on business. What actually happened shocked nearly everyone, including workers who had seen partisan transitions dating back to the Longley, Brennan and McKernan administrations of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Telegram interviewed nearly two dozen current and former DEP employees with wide-ranging backgrounds, seniority and responsibilities. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation against themselves, their colleagues or their current employers.

The interviews paint a picture of a department under siege, with staff experts under verbal orders to no longer initiate communications with the outside world or to provide technical information even to legislators. Some employees alleged that certain staffers have been targeted for elimination and, as one current employee put it, "are hounded and bullied out of office."

"There was an immediate gag order put on staff and on staff's ability to freely interact with the public and talk about environmental concerns or to make requirements of people," says James Cassida, who was director of the DEP's Division of Land Resource Regulation when he left the department in August 2011. He says the policy was unprecedented.

"No staff other than a select few were allowed to speak to the Legislature in any shape or form, formal or informal," Cassida added, noting legislators typically request DEP experts to provide technical information on various issues.

"I was still allowed, but I was closely watched in terms of what I said. There were a couple of times where I was in front of a legislative committee and a legislator would ask me a question that I had a hard time answering in a way that fit into the parameters that I was allowed. And that was something I'd never experienced."

"Historically, we'd provide both sides of a given regulatory issue to legislators, and they would make policy as they saw fit," says a current DEP staffer. "But the current commissioner is a lobbyist, and that approach is to tell only one side of the story: the client's side of the story."

Most state employees interviewed said that once corporate lobbyist Patricia Aho became acting commissioner in June 2011, power was quickly and intensely concentrated in her hands and those of two other political appointees -- policy director Heather Parent and the then-communications director, Samantha DePoy-Warren -- and that decisions on complex technical matters are often made in secret and without input from in-house experts.

"Those three folks make all the decisions," one current staffer said. "A lot of draft regulations go up there and nothing happens. They just don't want anything going forward."

(DePoy-Warren left the department last month and is now communications director at the Education Department.)

"There's a total disregard for the expertise and experience of highly qualified staff," says Malcolm Burson, who resigned as the department's deputy policy director in November 2011 after Aho directed him to stop overseeing the creation of the state's climate adaptation strategy. "It all seems to be about maintaining total control."

• THE FEAR OF REPRISAL: 'IT'S BAD FOR PUBLIC POLICY, AND ... WELL-BEING.'

Aho disagrees with the notion that staff were being shut out of decisions, although she acknowledged that policy formulation was now being conducted by dedicated policy staff. Technical experts "are still involved," she said in a February interview. "They are still very much part of the whole process. The only difference is that the people who format the reports are different."

"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'

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

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)