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For Immediate Release: Jun 05, 2000
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

DEM NOT PROTECTING ENVIRONMENT, EMPLOYEES SAY IN SURVEY

Poor Leadership & Politics Plague State Agency


Washington, DC - In the first-ever staff survey of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), employees say pollution protection is deteriorating, politics routinely override science and the agency is adrift due to weak leadership. On many issues agency managers and supervisors were more critical of agency performance than rank and file employees, in the survey conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington, DC- based environmental watchdog organization.

Nearly three out of five responding managers and supervisors disagree with the statement that "Rhode Island's environment is better protected now than it was five years ago." More than one fifth of employees report they "have been directed by a superior to ignore an environmental regulation." On other questions relating to environmental enforcement the PEER survey shows:

* nearly half of agency managers "fear job-related retaliation for advocating enforcement of environmental regulations" compared to more than a third of all employees;

* almost three-quarters of all employees do not "trust DEM's top administrators to stand up against political pressure in protecting the environment" while more than two-thirds of employees (74%) and managers (71%) agree that DEM's "decision-making is based more on politics than science"; and

* high percentages of both managers (65%) and employees (49%) think the "regulated community excessively influences decision-making at DEM while a plurality of supervisors (48%) doubt that "DEM management is committed to enforcement of environmental laws."

Questions about departmental leadership drew even more negative responses:

* only 11% of all employees and 16% of supervisors feel that "DEM is a well managed agency" while strong majorities of employees (66%) and supervisors (64%) say their leadership lacks "a clear vision for the agency";

* although in office little more than a year, DEM Director Jan Reitsma does not appear to be winning staff confidence. Only 22% of all employees and 25% of managers think "Reitsma is doing a good job as Director of DEM" while 49% of all staff and 64% of managers disagree; and

* more than three quarters of responding staff and managers do not think Reitsma "has made positive strides in rebuilding trust between management and the rank & file."

The PEER survey also solicited employee essays on "the biggest problem facing DEM." An overwhelming number of employees faulted agency leadership with many singling out Reitsma. Several cited erratic or dictatorial behavior by the Director. A typical response was this essay:

"In the last several months we have lost three attorneys. A fourth will be leaving in late June. Ask them why they left...If they answer truthfully, I suspect it will point to one individual, Director Reitsma. Jan Reitsma is a strange individual. He has no tolerance for opinions different than his. I honestly believe he needs counseling."

The survey also asked employees' views on cooperation from other agencies:

* only 6% of employees think the "Legislature has been a constructive contributor to environmental protection" while three quarters disagree;

* only 15% feel "the Attorney General has played a meaningful leadership role in environmental protection"; and

* only 11% of respondents feel the "general public understands what we do at DEM."

"These survey results are a piercing cry for help from a demoralized and embattled workforce," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization has conducted similar surveys in more than 30 state and federal agencies. "A year ago, I met with Jan Reitsma and asked him to reach out to his staff and adopt the type of non-retaliation policies that exist in other states, but he refused saying that there was no need."

Staff also gave a bleak assessment of agency climate:

* only 4% feel "morale at DEM is good" while 89% do not; and

* less than a quarter would "recommend working at DEM to people interested in public service."

"Discontent at DEM is spiraling out of control and Jan is in deep denial," concluded Ruch.

In May, PEER mailed surveys to all 557 employees at Rhode Island DEM. 147 responded for a 26% response rate. More than a fifth (21%) of respondents identified themselves as managers or supervisors.

A complete set of survey responses is available upon request.