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Served Cold

Some suspect retaliation in NMED shuffling

May 18, 2011, 6:00 am

Was retaliation the motive for recent transfers of New Mexico Environment Department employees? Documents obtained by SFR suggest it may have been.


Earlier this month, four top regulators—experts with years of experience in multiple gubernatorial administrations—were abruptly transferred to jobs outside their fields of expertise.


The changes came amid a larger reorganization at NMED. Environmental health was stripped of division status and placed under the Office of General Counsel. Deputy Secretary Raj Solomon, a recent appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez and former pool program manager under Gov. Bill Richardson, will head both the Operations & Infrastructure Division, and Information Technology Services. 


NMED spokeswoman Jill Turner says Cabinet Secretary F David Martin made the consolidations to accommodate the lack of appointed positions available for division heads. But she had no explanation for personnel moves.


“I can’t answer that; the secretary made an executive decision,” Turner says.


The personnel moves are lateral—classified employees can’t be arbitrarily fired or demoted. But observers suggest the moves are meant to weaken NMED’s oversight and demoralize employees who’ve spoken up publicly—or privately—about Martinez’ stance on environmental regulations. 


“It will take years for the department to recover the lost knowledge and skills of these people and its overall morale…which may be the point,” Michael Jensen, primary grant writer of the Taos-based water rights group Amigos Bravos, says. 


Water and Wastewater Division Chief Marcy Leavitt was punted to Petroleum Storage Tank Bureau. Air Quality Bureau Chief Mary Uhl was pushed to Occupational Health & Safety. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant liaison Steve Zappe, who managed oversight of WIPP for 17 years, was moved to food safety. Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi had been the state’s lead spokesman on a Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill near Albuquerque drinking water wells. But after he made strong statements about the Air Force’s lackluster response to the spill, his bosses barred him from speaking to reporters. He’s now at Surface Water Quality. 


In emails to SFR, Uhl, Zappe and Bearzi refer questions about their transfers to NMED spokeswoman Turner. Leavitt expressed fear of repercussions.


“I can’t talk because I’m concerned that, if I do, I will get into additional trouble with the management that’s here now,” Leavitt says.


Public records requested by SFR show a correlation between analyses offered by the shuffled employees that ran counter to Martinez’ legislative goals and apparent attempts to hide the results. During the 2011 legislative session, Solomon cancelled several bill analyses from NMED experts and bureau chiefs without explanation.


The cancelled reports addressed legislative bills in favor of capping utility company expenditures on renewable energy programs, attempts to reverse the state’s decision to cap greenhouse emissions and several other regulatory issues. Even without criticisms in hands, the Legislative Finance Committee delivered negative feedback and the bills later died in committee.


In analyses that weren’t cancelled, NMED experts—including Leavitt and Uhl—blasted Martinez-backed bills, noting potential harm to public health, violations of the state constitution, noncompliance with federal regulations and vulnerability to significant fines. 


Surface Water Quality Bureau Chief Bill Olson prepared an analysis of a bill giving the state agriculture secretary power to bypass scientific evidence or public input when adopting or enforcing public health rules. Olson was deeply critical of the bill, and Solomon withdrew the analysis.


Solomon did not respond to questions from SFR regarding the cancellations.


Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell says the governor “support[s] Secretary Martin’s efforts and prerogative to structure the Environment Department in a way that he deems most suitable to accomplishing its mission.”


But that structure is deliberately impeding the ability of both the department and the Legislature to be effective, according to watchdogs like Jensen.


“We have a part-time citizen legislature that gets information from two sources: lobbyists and fiscal impact reports from the affected agencies,” he says. “It is unconscionable for the Martinez administration to censor these reports and then destroy the careers of the people who wrote them.”


 

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