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Daggett is No White Hat on The Environment

The business community’s news outlet NJBIZ, is running a story today on Chris Daggett’s environmental credentials.

In the course of doing so, they predictably stress a business perspective and repeat certain myths about DEP and the economy.

In our view, this puts Daggett in a negative light and provides an opportunity for me to rehash a critique of Daggett’s role as Chair of former DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson’s controversial “Permit Efficiency Task Force”.  According to NJBIZ:

Chris Daggett, Independent candidate for Governor, drinks bottled water at NJ debate on energy & environmental issues

The need for speed in N.J. government

Daggett would use his experience in business and politics to succeed

Speed and efficiency.

These words aren’t often associated with New Jersey state government, but Chris Daggettsaid his time in the private sector has taught him they are traits the government needs.


Daggett points to his experience chairing a task force appointed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine to increase efficiency in the DEP permitting process. Task force member Joseph F. Riggs, group president of K. Hovnanian Homes, credited Daggett with forging consensus among the 24-member group for changes to DEP processes.

“There was give and take all the way around,” Riggs said.

The task force has its critics. Former DEP Commissioner Bill Wolfe said business interests were too dominant, and that it put speeding up development ahead of the environment.

“I think that it is a misguided effort” Wolfe said, but credited Daggett with elevating the tone of the campaign.

I will be blunt: the DEP Permit Efficiency Task Force was a sham attempt to promote a business agenda, while disingenuousl trying to mask its real anti-environmental agenda.

In this context, “faster” means a race to the bottom, or acceleration towards the edge of a cliff. “Need for speed” becomes “feed the greed”.

Perhaps I am being too blunt. The role of the DEP Task Force is aptly illustrated by this analogy, by Harvard professor Rory Stewart in a recent Bill Moyers PBS interview about the Obama administration’s deliberations on escalating the war in Afghanistan:

it’s as though they come to you and they say, “We’re planning to drive our car off a cliff. Do we wear a seatbelt or not?” And we say, “Don’t drive your car off the cliff.” And they say, “No, no, no. That decision’s already made. The question is should we wear our seatbelts?” And you say, “Why by all means wear a seatbelt.” And they say, “Okay, we consulted with policy expert, Rory Stewart,” et cetera. [Link to transcript]

As the history shows, the DEP Task Force grew out of one of the Corzine Administration’s failed attempts to promote economic development, particularly the housing and construction sectors.

Those failures were a direct result of Corzine’s flawed premise that environmental protection was a factor in the collapse of the housing market.

But despite the repeated lies of construction industry lobbyists, we all now know that this collapse was a result of the collapse of financial markets, due in large measure to sub prime mortgages (see: “Builders Gone Wild“).

Regardless of the economic facts, the flawed thinking that blamed environmental protection and DEP “bureaucracy” resulted in passage of the Permit Extension Act, a series of DEP regulatory rollbacks, and the DEP Permit Efficiency Task Force.

DEP Commissioner Lisa JAckson (L) & DCA Commissioner Joe Doria (R)

DEP Commissioner Lisa JAckson (L) & DCA Commissioner Joe Doria (R)

Specifically, as folks will recall, Department of Community Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Joe Doria resigned in disgrace while under investigation in the “Operation Bid Rig” criminal probe.

Prior to his resignation, Doria was the Administration’s public point of the spear in this flawed attack on DEP and environmental protections.

Behind the scenes, Corzine’s Economic Czar and Wall Street colleague Gary Rose, ran herd on DEP. Doria had formed his own stealth Task Force, stacked with developers and builders. The DEP Task Force was Lisa Jackson’s parallel initiative, intended to dampen the worst aspects of the Corzine, Doria, Rose agenda.

So, with this brief history in mind, let’s excerpt and examine the policy Daggett presided over and takes ownership for as Chair of the Task Force:

1. Transparency, openess, and ethics,

Despite being petitioned to do so, Daggett did not support open deliberations, transparency and standards for ethical dealings applied to the Task Force he chaired. This record needs to be compared to his campaign rhetoric that stresses open government, transparency, and high ethical standards. Additionally, members of the Task Force were mainly political lobbyists, not scientists, engineers, or management and public policy experts. This reality conflcits with Daggett’s campaign rhetoric in support of science based public policy decisions in the public interest.

2. DEP mission and role

The Task Force recommended that DEP should “do less with less”:

“In this time of fiscal crisis, the challenge, before the DEP is to develop different approaches to managing, to consider doing less with less, recognizing that this must be done without compromising environmental protection or public health.”

That add on about not “compromising” protections is pure spin – and it goes against the Daggettt campaign rhetoric about the need for hard choices.

In contrast to Daggett’s misplaced focus on speed and efficiency, at the same time the Task Force was deliberating, the US EPA audited DEP operations by focusing on quality, science, and whether DEP was achieving its mission. EPA reviews sought to INCREASE environmental performance, which is vastly different from expediting that performance to meet the business community’s needs and bottom line profit concerns.

3. Privatization and deregulation

The Taskforce recommended that privatization and deregulation should be expanded:

“In an output/performance-driven system, the DEP would focus on the efficient execution of inherently governmental functions and explore using outside assistance, advanced IT tools or both, to complete the straightforward tasks that are not necessary to be done by government. To accomplish this, a major change must occur in the way that scope and responsibility are allocated within the DEP. In short, if the DEP is ever going to reach a high level of efficiency and effectiveness, the goal for the DEP should be to determine which environmental services are essential and which can be eliminated; which can be consolidated and which cannot; which must be provided by government and which can be delivered by outside vendors or through advanced IT tools, or both.”

4. Honest politics and government

Based on a review of the Corzine administration’s actions, it becomes clear that the policy motivation and agenda for the Task Force were concealed. Daggett went along with this game.

The original composition of Task Force was established in Jackson’s Administrative Order.

But the original composition was expanded to include environmental, community and public interest representatives only AFTER strong public criticism of its failure to represent public interests (see this criticism which drove that expansion). I personally spoke to Daggett about this, because he publicly stated that the Task Force was his idea and evidence that he could work with diverse constituents.  Well, if so, then why didn’t the original include those diverse interests? Why didn’t Daggett fix this?

The members of the Task Force included representatives of residential and commercial developers, environmental organizations, land use planning firms, nongovernment organizations, housing advocacy groups, business and industry, the environmental justice community, counties, municipalities, public utilities authorities, engineering firms, the EPA, the Governor’s office and environmental consulting firms. Three were former cabinet members: DEP, Transportation and Community Affairs.

This composition shows that the initiative was primarily political, not science and policy oriented. This is not exactly the independent good government model Daggett talks about on the campaign trail.

5. The pro-environment objectives were used as green cover

The Order creating the Task Force included pro-environmental policy objectives (in bold):

b. The report of the Task Force shall also provide recommendations for operational, policy and regulatory changes at the department to provide incentives for and to advance sustainable development projects that contribute to achieving statewide greenhouse gas limits, economic growth opportunities in urban areas and meaningful affordable housing and that, as a result of their location and design, have little or no impact on public health and safety, the environment or natural resources; and

c. As part of its deliberations, the Task Force may also identify possible statutory changes that would result in enhancing the DEP’s timely and efficient service or the DEP’s ability to provide incentives for sustainable development projects that contribute to achieving statewide greenhouse gas limits, economic growth opportunities in urban areas and meaningful affordable housing and that, as a result of their location and design, have little or no impact on public health and safety, the environment or natural resources”

But the pro-environmental policy objectives were completely ignored in the Task Force Report. This fact seriously calls into question Daggett’s rhetorical commitments to balanced policy.

6.  Orwellian euphemism was used to mask a pro-business anti-environmental agenda:

“In short, the Commissioner formed the Task Force out of a concern that the current permitting process cannot keep up with demand. The Commissioner asked the Task Force to help her in making the permit process more timely, predictable, consistent and transparent to the regulated community [Note: but what about to the public?] and to do so at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers while enhancing New Jersey’s environment.”

That finding is long on euphemisms and short on substance – and it conflicts with Daggett’s claims of the need for tradeoffs, compromises, and tough choices.

7. Faster means weaker protections – DEP already rubber stamps 90-95% of permits“ only the really bad projects need “streamlining”

The Report found DEP approves the overwhelming majority of permits within deadlines, and that only really bad permits must be expedited – this shows the real agenda of the Task Force – to promote bad projects and expedite their permits:

“Overall, 90 percent to 95 percent are approved, often with substantial changes as a result of DEP input, with the remainder being denied or withdrawn. The permit decisions are usually made within the statutory timeframe, which varies from program to program. The permitting system breaks down most frequently when there are multiple permits for a single project, when projects are large in size and when impacts to the environment are complex and potentially extensive.”

8. The Private sector knows best –

The Report recommended that DEP should emulate the lprivate sector – the same folks who caused the economic collapse, and just so happen to be large polluters who have off-shored jobs and deindustrialized the US manufacturing base.

This private sector uber alles mentality also ignores the fundamental legal and policy reality that DEP protects public resources that are not subject to market values, but to democratic preferences and science:

“Overall, there is no single silver bullet that can fix the various permitting problems of the DEP. Rather, what is needed is similar to the approach that enables certain manufacturing companies to stand out in their fields. The success of these companies is rooted in rigorous and unrelenting attention to all of the little details of the manufacturing process, or in the DEP’s case, the permitting process. The successful manufacturing companies have created a work culture with a bias toward action” a performance-driven environment”and have empowered its employees to perform.”

9. A rationale Commissioner Jackson relied on to privatize DEP science (i.e. Science Advisory Board) and abolish the Division of Science and Research

Although it is clearly limited to academic scientists, this recommendation was misused by Commissioner Lisa Jackson to abolish DEP DSR and seek greater private sector control via a new SAB:

“In the course of Task Force deliberations, two issues arose which were outside the charge of the Administrative Order but which directly impact the efficiency of the DEP. The first is the quality of science and research that provides the underpinning of the policies, guidance, directives and regulations of the DEP. Through the first two decades of the DEP’s history, the Office of Science and Research was one of the most highly regarded programs in the country. However, during the past two decades, budget cuts and reorganizations have undercut the quality of the program. While the Office still does excellent work, the staff simply cannot keep up with the breadth and scope of DEP needs. Accordingly, the TaskForce recommends that the DEP convene a study group that examines this issue and addresses possible ways to restore the stature of the Office, with a particular focus on collaborative efforts with academic research institutions and outstanding practitioners to minimize or avoid significant budget and staff increases.”

Also, the recommended public “study grow” was never formed, nor was the mistaken recommendation to”restore the stature of the Office” implemented. The recommendation also is based on an error: DEP Science and Research was a Division at the time of this Report, not an office. – this is a revealing error. The Division was downsized to an Office based in part on this recommendation.

[correction: I was a former DEP policy analyst, not DEP Commissioner. NJBIZ got it wrong on that]

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