Weekly Briefing

Whistling past the environmental graveyard

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NC DENR secretary urges employees not to sweat their agency’s demise

It’s one of many contradictions that frequently confront conservatives – especially hard-line, anti-government conservatives – when they assume the reins of political power: How does one lead a public agency when one has profound ideological objections to its mission and even its very existence?

Through the years, different conservative leaders have used different approaches. Back during the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan infamously appointed zealots and ideologues to head agencies and departments whose existence failed the conservative litmus test. This produced the frequently-absurd spectacle of agency bosses who came to power with something akin to a prosecutorial attitude toward their own employees.

Reagan’s appointments of James Watt and Anne Gorsuch (two conservative ideologues committed to undermining the work of, respectively, the Department of the Interior and Environmental Protection Agency) provided one of the great scandals of his administration.

For the most part, George W. Bush was more inclined to call on political hacks than aggressive ideologues (who can forget the infamous Michael D. Brown of the botched FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina), though John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales did do their share of aggressive damage to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties while serving as Attorney General.

Of course, some conservatives have resisted this temptation. Former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin appointed several reasonable and dedicated people to head various state agencies during his years in office as did the first President Bush. In fairness, it should also be noted that the elevation of political hacks to high office is something in which politicians of all ideologies engage.

The McCrory administration approach

Pat McCrory – fresh off an electoral victory fueled in part by his late-career embrace of Tea Party politics — has, of course, been forced to confront the anti-government/governance dilemma. After all, when a crusading far right multi-millionaire like Art Pope is one of your top backers, there’s no avoiding the hiring of, well, Art Pope (as well as several other committed ideologues) to run your administration.

Consequently, while McCrory has, to his credit, installed respected and reasonable moderates to head his Departments of Revenue (longtime former GOP lawmaker Lyons Gray) and Cultural Resources (the former mayor of Salisbury, Susan Kluttz), most of his selections have been cut from ultra-conservative cloth.

In addition to Pope, McCrory selected a wealthy, arch-conservative political operative with zero relevant administrative experience to run the state’s massive department of Health and Human Services (with sadly predictable results), a fire-breathing, hyper-partisan lawyer with a somewhat contentious past to lead the Department of Public Safety (who didn’t last a year before leaving under mysterious circumstances) and a controversial former Fox News commentator who’d been fired from his last government job to oversee the Department of Transportation.

Undermining environmental protection

Another controversial hire was the man chosen to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (perennially one of the right’s chief targets) – corporate executive and climate change questioner John Skvarla. Since his selection a year ago, Skvarla has dutifully overseen and implemented what can only be described as an aggressive downsizing of the state’s environmental protection efforts.

As was noted yesterday on The Progressive Pulse blog:

One of the signature ‘accomplishments’ of conservative state leadership in North Carolina in recent years has been the steady and ongoing rollback of state environmental protection laws and regulations. This is not to imply that the state has ever done enough — even under past General Assemblies and governors — to truly protect our ever-more-fragile air, land and water, but it’s also clear that things have gotten much, much worse in recent years.

Whether it’s the efforts to deny climate change and sea-level rise, fast-track fracking and off-shore oil drilling, stop efforts to clean up Jordan Lake, build artificial sea walls along the coast, roll back scores of rules and regulations, pack various commissions and boards with advocates hostile to environmental protection, limit land preservation, slash funding or just defund, demoralize, break up and change the mission statement of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources itself, the conservative agenda has been (and continues to be) a long and ambitious one.”

Meanwhile, like a slash and burn CEO selected by corporate raiders to oversee the demise of a once proud company sold off to foreign investors, Skvarla has done his best to put a smiling face on the whole exercise – whether it’s blithely denying any intent to weaken environmental protection rules and regulations or subtly altering the mission statement of the agency.

For many devoted DENR employees the whole thing has simply been too much – especially with McCrory’s dramatic expansion of political hires. Last September, a veteran employee spoke for many fired or forced-out professionals when she issued a scathing resignation statement that lambasted Skvarla’s tenure for its kowtowing to conservative lawmakers and the interests of corporate developers. Many other DENR folks soldier on in muzzled and demoralized silence.

The latest indignity

How much longer this can all continue without a lot more scornful public resignations remains to be seen, but Skvarla’s latest controversial actions seems unlikely to help much. As was also noted on The Progressive Pulse yesterday, the Secretary took the extraordinary action in recent days of advising DENR staffers (both via email and an in-person joint appearance with the Governor himself) that they can best cope with the dramatic and controversial changes underway in their agency if they simply “smile, be happy, have fun and enjoy the process.” You can watch the video of the McCrory/Skvarla presentations by clicking here (Skvarla comes on at around the 10 minute mark).

Skvarla also explained to employees (quite bizarrely) that while he regretted their lack of raises in recent years, they could help themselves to obtain higher pay in the future by helping the administration enact its policy agenda (which would thereby, presumably, stimulate the economy, promote economic growth and ultimately raise state revenues). The not-so-thinly-veiled message: “Do the bidding of the companies you regulate and maybe get a little indirect piece of the action down the line yourself!”

Think about that for a moment. Imagine that you were someone who had devoted your professional career to preserving our state’s fragile environment – often with significant pressure to do the bidding of developers and other corporate interests (even under Democratic administrations). Now imagine that your boss – a man with no real experience in your world and who has questioned basic scientific knowledge – delivers such a message to you. It’s hard to conceive of just how demoralizing that would be.

Going forward

So how long will this go on? Will the ideologues last throughout the McCrory term or tire of the fight? Often, the early years of new administrations are the most controversial ones. Perhaps this will be the case with McCrory. Rumors in Raleigh have had Pope himself resigning before too long.

That said, there have been few outward signs of such a shift. The beleaguered DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, for instance, gives no indication of departing (even as editorial pages and political adversaries loudly call for her ouster).

For now, it appears, North Carolina is, like the DENR workforce itself, stuck with a chief environmental policymaker who is more than willing to help implement a dramatic and demoralizing reduction in the state’s environmental protection efforts.

The only saving grace, it would appear, is that the rest of us don’t have to smile or be happy about it.

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