DEP commissioner wants to overhaul agency to make it more agile, efficient

Posted Dec. 07, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 07, 2011, at 6:24 p.m.
Pattie Aho
Pattie Aho

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping reorganization of the agency which she said would make it more agile and efficient.

Commissioner Pattie Aho said the reorganization would put DEP employees into bureaus based on the type of work they do in the three main areas of resource protection, environmental assessment and resource administration. The DEP is now organized into three main bureaus: Air Quality, Land and Water Quality, and Remediation and Waste Management.

Aho revealed her plans at a Maine State Chamber of Commerce symposium aimed at environmental issues held at Texas Instruments in South Portland. Chamber leader Dana Connors called the DEP’s reorganization “a significant step.”

“It’s not about doing away with environmental regulations, destroying the environment,” he said. “It’s about trying to provide predictability, efficiency.”

The 406-person department already has made some moves. DEP employees who work in policy development have been grouped together in the Unit of Policy Development and Implementation. Workers who are in the areas of outreach and education have been put together in a Unit of Communications & Education.

Aho said there are no layoffs planned as part of this reorganization. She noted that in some cases, workers who primarily have been doing work in one area, such as air quality, may be able to do similar work in another area, such as water quality. That sort of cross-training wouldn’t work in areas that demand a high level of technical skills, she added.

One goal is to simplify procedures for businesses, land owners, developers and others who seek regulatory approval for projects. Instead of having to work through three different bureaus for different permits, Aho said they should be able to work with employees who are all in the same department, she said.

The DEP will maintain its four regional offices around the state and employees who are in those locations will remain there — they will just be parts of different bureaus, working remotely.

The plan also recognizes that “we are facing diminishing financial resources,” Aho said. Next summer, the DEP and all state departments will prepare for zero-based budgeting, in which they must prepare a financial plan from the ground up. This reorganization will better position the DEP to begin that process, Aho said.

Legislative approval is needed to actually change the names of the bureaus. Aho plans to bring her proposal before legislators in the 2012 session, with the reorganization to follow.

“I’m optimistic it will go well,” Aho said.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday that he thought Aho’s moves were aimed at making the department able to move more quickly. He said he likely would ask the commissioner to give a presentation to his committee on the proposal.

“I think it will go well,” he said. “We want to see flexibility. There’s no question we want to see the environment protected.”

Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he needed much more information on the plan. He said he studied numerous reorganizations when he was pursuing his MBA at the University of Maine and they also contain trade-offs. At this point, he said, he has no idea what the trade-offs may be in the DEP’s proposed plan — what will the department gain, and lose?

“I think it’s something the Legislature should be looking at,” he said. “I’m not sure if this is a fix or not.”

He also questioned part of Aho’s presentation that noted the changes would allow the DEP to focus on core priorities. Duchesne, who pens a birding column for the Bangor Daily News, said he wasn’t sure whose core priorities the commissioner was referring to and suggested that lawmakers should make sure those priorities are the ones spelled out in law.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Natural Resources Council of Maine advocacy director said the group was “deeply concerned” about the plan and urged legislators to stop it.

“The proposed new functional areas don’t seem simpler; they’re more confusing. But the larger concern that should be a worry for the business community, lawmakers and Maine people, is that this massive shuffling of staff and functions at DEP will disrupt the important work that DEP does every day protecting our air, water and land,” Pete Didisheim wrote. “If the administration drags Maine’s DEP down this path, then restructuring will be the focus of the agency for the next couple of years, instead of environmental protection. This DEP restructuring threatens the job of protecting Maine’s environment by bogging down the entire agency in the restructuring process.”

Aho unveiled another initiative, a pilot “facilities manager” program aimed at helping small and mid-size businesses in Maine that deal with the DEP. The companies will be matched up with points of contact in the DEP who will help them work through state laws and regulations. The first companies taking part in the pilot program include Arundel Machine, Kenway Corp., Dragon Products and FMC BioPolymer.

Aho also said the DEP’s website has been redeveloped and the new one will go live soon. It will be more user-friendly and easier to search, she said. And the department also was reviving the governor’s awards for environmental excellence aimed at highlighting private, public and nonprofit work in environmental stewardship. The first awards would be given in April 2012, around Earth Day, Aho said.

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