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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.

DEP Headquarters. Trenton, NJ.

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.

Chemical industry lobbyist – former DEP staffer – had a meeting with DEP today. With whom? To discuss what? Doesn’t the public have a right to know?

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.

DEP Trenton HQ – back door courtyard view


  1. fooliwas
    February 15th, 2008 at 21:33 | #1

    Normal NJ polititions!

  2. nohesitation
    February 15th, 2008 at 21:42 | #2

    I don’t just want to complain about it I am trying to fix it.
    This is not normal – we can do better.
    If every lobbyist going into the DEP building knew that what he recommended was a public record posted on the internet, then his influence would be greatly curbed.
    DEP staffers also would be empowered to apply the science and the laws in the public interest –
    Managers would be far more reluctant to follow unwise orders dictated from above, often for political reasons.

  3. notebene
    February 16th, 2008 at 08:14 | #3

    Bravo Bill Wolfe. Sad to say what you describe is typical of all state agencies. The “regulated” have the access and the clout to move their agendas in Trenton, Newark and in the legislature even while their cases are pending. This administration is not much different than the others. Access and confidentiality and deliberative process are all part of the smoke screen to cover up what actually goes on when big bucks are at stake. The “sunshine law” and OPRA are so much blather when it comes to stopping the manipulation of policy by vested interests. Hail to the $$$$$$ long live the revolving doors!

  4. hglindquist
    February 16th, 2008 at 08:19 | #4

    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.
    This is an excellent post! I am going to spend some time with it and try to digest all of your facts, opinions, and suggestions.
    Based on my first reading — with your followup comment — I would say immediately that “a public record posted on the internet” garners a rock-solid A+
    Can you imagine what the NJ Voices bloggers could do with THAT?!
    [Sound of cheering crowd]
    [Fade to black]
    [Roll credits]

  5. nohesitation
    February 16th, 2008 at 10:13 | #5

    Hglinquist and notabene
    Thanks – just think for a moment – aside from bad decisions that all that access to DEP provides. What about potential corruption?
    Local mayors have gone to jail for getting their driveways paved – all for a couple thousand bucks.
    A State Senator was just indicted for kickbacks for legislative favors – for $5,500 per month.
    One of the facts disclosed in US Attorney’s plea agreement with John Lynch was that Lynch was lobbyisnbg DEP for various environmental approvals.
    So why does the pay to play, ethics, and corurption debates NEVER focus on DEP?
    DEP approvals are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

  6. hglindquist
    February 16th, 2008 at 10:57 | #6

    I’ve already suggested over on Jon Shure and John Atlas threads that we make this a collaborative NJ Voices issue following your lead.
    And though I will chide you mercilessly on occasion … this is a — what did Maslow call them? — peak, self-actualizing moment of creative thought.
    It’s what makes the adventure here on NJ Voices worth the time and effort.
    We the people need this access to information to effectively participate in governing ourselves.

  7. jerseyswamp2
    February 16th, 2008 at 19:18 | #7

    Top management lays out the mores of any organization. In this case the Governor and the Commissioner have clearly let it be known that the people coming through the back door are DEP’s “clients”. Business and industry are to be served and their lobbiests taken very seriously. For example a lobbiest like Harold Hodes of Public Strategies Impact Inc., not only represents polluters put he is a major fund raiser and political strategist for the dems. If his client wants a rule changed, bent or more likely “reinterpreted” his client will walk through the back door of the DEP building and be served coffee and doughnuts while three or four assistant commissioners take copious notes of exactly what “adjustments” his clients would find helpful. Operatives like Hodes have long ago figured out the recipe for cooking the system. To disrupt this highly refined well entrenched system is not a matter of “blowing the whistle” it is more a matter of changing the culture at DEP and other state agencies. Unfortunately that only happens when top management seriously emphasizes an ethic of principal and public service.

  8. nohesitation
    February 17th, 2008 at 09:46 | #8

    jswamp – again, your enlightened comments surpass the original post!
    We need to change the culture at DEP from the top down – the first step should reflect the old adage:
    “sunlight is the best disinfectant”

  9. byramaniac
    February 17th, 2008 at 11:27 | #9

    Wolfe – once again, great job!
    It’s not just DEP that suffers the “revolving back door” problem – it’s prevalent all throughout NJ government.
    Take this example I’m dealing with in Byram, regarding a major roadway project on Route 206. The text below comes verbatim from a director in the Community Relations department, to our township manager. This group could REALLY use some sunshine!
    From: (name removed) [mailto:(name removed)@dot.state.nj.us]
    Sent: Monday, February 04, 2008 11:03 AM
    To: (Township Manager)
    Subject: Re: Route 206 Widening Project
    Good morning, (Township Manager name removed),
    I spoke with the Mayor this morning by phone on my way into work about this very topic, and assured him that this “10 year list” is only in DRAFT form. It could change at any time. HOWEVER, I told the Mayor that I will do EVERYTHING that I can possibly do from my end to make sure this project stays on track. My biggest concern is the press getting a hold of this info and having a field day with it. I know (name of project opponent removed) will use this as a means to attempt to again derail this project and I expressed this to the Mayor. If at all possible I think it should be kept out of the papers which I know won’t happen. My suggestion to the Mayor was to contact (name removed), owner of the Shop-Rite, and ask him to send a letter down to the Commissioner. The Mayor then suggested having the Chamber of Commerce sending a letter down as well. I, if I get the chance, will speak directly to the Deputy Commissioner who met with Freeholder (name removed) last week and expressed to him the importance of this project and see if he is willing to take a field trip with me so that he can ask the different business owners along Rte. 206 how they feel. I think it would be a real ‘eye opener’ for him. Having done that myself, I know only too well that the business owners would be very upset if this project did not move forward. With regard to the ’10 year list’, the project manager, (name removed), told me that once this list is finalized by the Department it then has to go to the MPOs for review. So with Freeholder (name removed) sitting on that board, and as Director of that board, I believe, I can’t imagine that it would be approved. At least that would be my wish!! Hopefully this info has been helpful and again, I did speak directly to the Mayor this morning about it. (DOT project manager name removed) stated to me when I spoke to him that he is still planning on moving forward with the Final Design phase until otherwise told to do so. So we still are planning on coming up for that CSD meeting later this month. And (DOT project manager name removed) and I will be at the Planning Board meeting this Thursday, Feb. 7th evening. Take care and have a great day. If you need to discuss further, I will be in the office all day today, feel free to contact me at (609) (number removed).
    (name removed)
    Office of Community Relations
    Honestly, Wolfe, you can’t make this stuff up!

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