Firing the NY DEC Commissioner


(This 1024th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 7, 2010.)


I am one of the few people I know who has supported Governor Patterson recently. I have thought that he has been forced to address a terrible fiscal melt-down that was thrust upon him by outside forces over which he has no control.


Now, however, the governor has been caught with his pants down — figuratively this time, unlike the previous occupant. His firing of Pete Grannis, the state's commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), represents the very worst of bureaucratic abuse.


Grannis wrote a carefully reasoned memorandum to supporters in defense of his department. The memo was leaked so he was fired. The message conveyed by this action: keep governmental activities secret. Don't let the public know. That way administrators can get away with anything.


If that is Patterson's method of governing, then I suggest that a single word, one that a university colleague once addressed to his department chair, applies to him. The single word: begone.


No wonder we have to have so-called "sunshine" laws that require government to divulge what is going on. Unfortunately, the time delay getting the courts to enforce those laws play into the malefactors' hands. By the time the secrets are divulged, those guys have moved on to still worse behavior.


So let's see what Grannis had to say in his unacceptable memo. Here are some excerpts:


"DEC accounts for approximately 2.5% of the New York State workforce subject to Executive control, yet DEC's layoffs will comprise more than 10% of the 2000 positions the Governor plans to eliminate. Although DEC'S total State Operations budget is in excess of $500 million, three quarters of these funds are provided by the federal government and 'special revenue, other' (SRO) accounts. For example, the federal government covers most of the cost of DEC's implementation of Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act requirements. The SROs are statutorily created and provide a dedicated means of financing discrete activities: the Conservation Fund is funded by the sale of fishing, hunting, and trapping licenses, and it pays for DEC's efforts in those areas (including the fish hatcheries, pheasant farm, law enforcement, hunter education, wildlife and fishery biologists, etc.). Expenditures from the SROs are legally restricted to the purposes for which they were created. Other State Agencies that are 100% federally funded or 100% SRO funded have been exempted from the Governor's proposed layoffs, yet DEC, with 75% of its funding coming from federal funds and SROs, is not only being asked to participate, but is being asked to carry a disproportionately large percentage of the layoffs.


"By the end of September 2010, DEC's workforce had already been reduced by almost 16%. DEC's general fund budget has been reduced by 13%. With the additional 209 jobs we are being called on to eliminate now, DEC's total job loss will be 804, 21% of the agency's workforce.


"This combination of severe resource limitations and increased responsibilities has already had a dramatic impact - fundamentally compromising the Department's responsibilities to preserve the state's environment, protect human health and meet its obligations to the public. We are now responding to and cleaning up fewer petroleum spills. Our inspections and enforcement activities in all programs have dwindled, e.g. hazardous waste, air emissions, wastewater discharges, dam safety, mining and drilling safety, wetlands development, shellfish safety, and enforcing hunting/fishing regulations."


I know the response some my no-new-taxes neighbors will offer to Grannis defense of his employees. Who needs those tree huggers? And I know some local town boards that will be delighted with such reductions. They will be able to circumvent laws like those that prevent their developer friends from building more homes in wetlands. Not to mention the poachers.


I am reminded too of what a local chemist shared with me some years ago. His company had handled industrial waste, picking up and reprocessing these often dangerous materials. He was closing down his business, he told me, because his competitors who underbid him were simply dumping what they picked up from manufacturing sites along country roads. I'm sure those guys are celebrating Grannis' departure and the further degradation of DEC law enforcement.


Along with our governor.-- Gerry Rising