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For Immediate Release: Feb 29, 2000
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

MONTANA'S ENVIRONMENT WORSE OFF, SAY DEQ EMPLOYEES

Survey Faults Management & Political Interference


Helena - Montana's environmental agency is mismanaged, hampered by turnover and lacks the resources to do its job, according to a survey of state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) employees released today by Montana Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Montana PEER). Majorities of state workers say Montana's environment is not better protected as a result of policies implemented by Governor Marc Racicot.

The survey was sent out to all DEQ employees by mail. Results are consistent with those from a similar 1996 survey by Montana PEER. In responding to the 1996 survey, DEQ Director Mark Simonich argued that the survey was premature, occurring too soon after the creation of DEQ, and that it would take years before informed assessments could be made.

Time has not softened harsh employee evaluations of agency effectiveness. In the latest DEQ survey:

* More than two-thirds of respondents say DEQ has insufficient "resources to fulfill its environmental mandates";

* More than half feel Montana's environment is not better protected and the creation of DEQ has not improved performance; and

* Less than a third think DEQ is well-managed.

"The people who know best are fearing the worst," said Montana PEER Assistant Director Nicole Cromwell. "They see politics and poor leadership hampering their abilities to do their jobs." Cromwell noted that Gov. Racicot had not followed up on his 1997 promise to retain a management firm to conduct an independent management review of DEQ operations.

Despite recent assurances of improvement, a top employee concern remains political interference with enforcement:

* A majority of respondents feel DEQ's leaders lack a "commitment to protecting Montana's natural resources";

* Nearly half contend that industry groups excessively influence agency decisions; this figure rises to 56% among people that have worked for DEQ for 5 or more years;

* Less than half believe agency leaders provide "accurate information to the public."

The survey also asked employees to identify the greatest challenge facing the agency and to make suggestions for reform to the next Governor. The most frequent subject of employee essays was the problems associated with sprawling development and insufficient planning.

On questions relating to climate for workers within the agency, employees were even more unified:

* More than 70 percent say DEQ has been hurt by high turnover among experienced staff;

* Less than a quarter of employees feel morale is good -- only 1 percent say it is excellent; and

* Little more than a third believe DEQ Administrators are selected "for their knowledge and experience in environmental protection" or believe top managers "back up employees who make hard decisions."

"The level of fear among DEQ employees remains high," stated Cromwell. "More than a quarter of employees admit that they fear retaliation for trying to enforce environmental laws." A strong majority of respondents favor enactment of a whistle blower protection law for state workers, a measure which has been blocked in the past two sessions of the Montana Legislature.

The survey also asked employees to identify one management or resource policy that needs to be changed. The overwhelming response was interference from DEQ's top administrators. As onerespondent put it, "If a project action or decision is controversial and/or receives bad press, it then becomes fair game for immediate resolution by upper management. Laws, rules, staff opinions and recommendations and in-house policy & procedures are put aside. . ..Right or wrong, the decision is based on politics and publicity."

The Montana PEER survey was mailed out to 347 DEQ employees in mid-January and 103 surveys were returned completed the surveys for a 30 percent response rate.