New Jersey Environmental Agency Wrestles With Transparency
Proposed PEER Openness Rules Being Studied for “Feasibility and Practicality”
Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is now considering adoption of a package of transparency rules proposed this July by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency says that it is taking additional time to “explore the feasibility and practicality” of maintaining open calendars, improving public notice and ending gag orders on its staff, according to a September 25, 2009 Notice of Action by the agency.
Under the state Administrative Procedures Act, DEP had 60 days to grant the PEER petition, deny it, or seek an additional 30-day extension to render a decision on the petition. The new deadline for a DEP decision is October 27th with that decision slated for publication in the New Jersey Register on November 2nd, one day before the gubernatorial election. PEER first proposed these rules in 2007 but then-DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson rejected the rules on the very day they were published.
“At least we are making progress – DEP has not rejected our rules out of hand on the very first day. This year they will be alive for 90 days before the ultimate action,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. “These are simple, common-sense steps to shed light on the back channels that lobbyists, lawyers and consultants use to penetrate DEP.”
The PEER rules would require public disclosure of meetings and communications between DEP policy makers and representatives for regulated industries and developers. DEP routinely conducts these meetings to negotiate permits, enforcement actions and health standards behind closed doors. The PEER plan would also require that calendars of top officials be posted on the web. Current Acting DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello has put his calendar off limits even to agency staff after PEER revealed that he was meeting with industry lobbyists last week about picks to the new Science Advisory Board.
Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has started posting her calendars on the agency’s web site, although she had claimed executive privilege to shield her calendar from public view when she was at DEP. Jackson’s posted calendars do not give the subject of meetings, however.
In addition, PEER proposes that DEP ban gag orders so that scientists, inspectors and other professional staff can speak honestly to the public and the media without fear of retaliation. A recent gag rule at DEP, for example, allows political staff to vet all scientific and technical reports prior to release.
“Kermit the Frog said ‘It’s not easy being green’ but in New Jersey it is harder being transparent,” Wolfe added. “DEP employees work at the agency but they work for the public and should be allowed to communicate with their true employers.”
New Jersey’s leading environmental groups have also backed the PEER rulemaking petition, urging Gov. Corzine to support it and additional DEP ethics reforms in an August 13, 2009 letter:
“Transparency and public disclosure can serve as checks on corrupt practices. A petition for rulemaking to force DEP to disclose all meetings and contact with third parties… would go a long way towards restoring public confidence in DEP.” Gov. Corzine has yet to respond to the letter.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability