Public business done behind closed doors
DEP does the people’s business – its internal workings should be able to withstand public scrutiny.
Today, I attended a public hearing at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) headquarters in Trenton. The hearing was DEP’s attempt to solicit public input into developing revised storm water management regulations. I applaud those efforts.
The hearing was fairly well attended by the usual suspects – government staffers; lawyers, lobbyists and engineers representing developers; and environmental advocates. There were only 3 citizens and no press in attendance. The hearing was announced publicly well in advance, open to the public, the discussions were recorded, and a DEP facilitator took extensive notes.
Nothing shady, secret, or inappropriate going on today during that meeting.
Just the opposite – there was an open and healthy exchange of viewpoints; participants were known to all; policy issues, alternatives, and upcoming decisions were transparent; and the discussions are all a matter of public record.
But this meeting is not my concern – it was what I saw after the meeting that disturbs me.
You see, the DEP building was literally crawling with lawyers, engineers, and lobbyists representing the chemical industry, developers, major air & water polluters, and other private interests that have huge economic stakes in the outcome of work that goes on inside the DEP building. This kind of access by private sector interests is a daily routine at DEP.
I don’t think the public has any idea how much access the developers and polluters have to DEP managers on a daily basis and how much influence these lobbyists have on the outcome of DEP decisions.
The DEP is supposed to be doing the people’s business so its internal workings should be able to withstand public scrutiny.
DEP’s decisions impact public health and environment. By law, DEP manages natural resources that are held in trust for the public. DEP s supposed to make decisions openly, based on science and law. But there is often a tremendous amount of discretion or judgment inherent in those decisions. Regulations are ambiguous and subject to interpretation and the science is almost always uncertain.
This is why access to DEP decision makers is such a critical issue.
We have tried to bring more transparency and openness to curb the special interest influence on DEP. Recently, we petitioned DEP to:
* 1) Provide public disclosure of meetings with regulated industry. DEP convenes closed-door meetings with lobbyists and designated insiders with no public attendance or publication of meeting agendas.
This request was denied by DEP Commissioner Jackson who claimed that meetings with regulated industries must stay confidential as a matter of “executive privilege and the deliberative process privilege”. The Commissioner claimed the substance and participants in those meetings are exempt from OPRA public records laws.
All visitors to DEP already sign in to a daily log that identifies the DEP staff person to be visited. Yet our OPRA request for that log was denied. What does DEP have to hide?
* 2) Publish the daily meeting calendars of top managers on the DEP website. The DEP Commissioner and top deputies routinely make decisions on enforcement and other pollution control policies in meetings with corporate lobbyists and executives, often from the same companies that are charged with violations.
Commissioner Jackson rejected that request on the grounds that it “implicates the privacy interests” of attendees. Tellingly, she also argued that revealing the “identity and the sequence of the persons with whom the Department senior staff consult could reveal the substance or direction or the mental processes of the Commissioner and Department staff”; and
* 3) Repeal a gag order and current Press Office policy that forbids DEP staffers answering questions posed by Media and the public. Under current DEP rules, agency scientists and other specialists are barred from speaking without prior approval from the agency Press Office.
Commissioner Jackson denied that request and maintained that any “issues” staff have should be raised within the management chain-of-command, noting that there are also whistleblower statutes. New Jersey whistleblower law does not, however, protect employee disclosures about threats to public health, manipulation of science or gross mismanagement, among other topics.
(for further details, see:
NEW JERSEY SAYS SECRET MEETINGS KEY TO ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY — Petition for New Transparency Rules Rejected the Same Day Notice Is Published
Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has formally rejected a petition to give the public notice of its meetings with lobbyists and to post appointment calendars of its top officials, according to an agency ruling released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action by DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson was dated the same day, July 2, 2007, the PEER petition for rulemaking was first published for public review in the July 2, 2007 New Jersey Register.
(for full report: http://www.peer.org/news/news_id.php?row_id=885
The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission has rules which require disclosure of any communications by registered lobbyist with DEP managers. Why doesn’t DEP have similar rules?
This is a fundamental reform issue about whether the agency operates in the public interest, is perceived as objective, and makes decision based on science and law, and not political influence and access.
We all lose when special interests exploit the back door and revolving door at DEP.