Columbus - Political interference, weak management and an exodus of veteran staff hamper the effectiveness of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, according to a survey of agency employees released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Agency employees also report illegal orders, inappropriate industry influence and inadequate funding to meet environmental mandates.
"This survey is an opportunity for Ohio EPA employees to directly communicate with their true employers, the taxpaying public, about what is really going on inside the walls of their environmental protection agency," said PEER National Field Director Eric Wingerter. "The survey results raise serious questions about the quality of decisions made at Ohio EPA affecting resource protection and public health."
This spring, PEER mailed a survey, consisting of questions written by employees, to each of Ohio EPA's 1100 staff members. More than one-third of all Ohio EPA staff returned completed surveys to PEER for tabulation. One major employee concern reflected by the survey centers around political interference in agency decision-making:
· More than two thirds of employees say environmental decisions "are overly-influenced by political considerations;"
· More than half believe Ohio EPA places more weight on serving the regulated community than it does on "serving the general public and the resource." Less than one third "trust top management of Ohio EPA to protect Ohio's environment and health;" and
· Nearly one third report instances in which an employee has "been directed to ignore an environmental law, regulation, or violation."
In essays concerning the "greatest challenge" facing the agency, a number of employees describe industry groups "writing their own permit," and when they try to enforce the law, Ohio EPA managers "obfuscate and delay" until the matter is dropped. Another respondent laments the "almost total capitulation of Ohio EPA & Ohio's political leadership (legislative and executive) to political expediency."
The survey also broke down how long respondents had worked at the agency with the most critical responses coming from veteran staff. For example, while just under half the employees who have worked for the agency less than 10 years believe that "Ohio's environment is protected better now by Ohio EPA than it was 4 years ago," only about a quarter of employees who have been with the agency more than 10 years share that sentiment. Overall, less than one fifth of the respondents believe agency morale is good with even lower figures among long-term employees.
In assessing causes, employees point to politicization, poor management and an agency-wide "brain drain" aggravated by a trend toward outsourcing professional jobs. More than half of respondents agree the agency "has been hurt by a high rate of staff turnover," with six in ten saying "the effectiveness of Ohio EPA has been hampered by the departure of experienced staff over the past few years."
Employees also perceive that dwindling resources prevent them from doing their jobs. More than seven in ten respondents believe that the agency "does not have sufficient resources to fulfill its environmental mission." In essay question responses, employees find it difficult to keep up with the "increasing number and complexity of regulations to adopt and enforce" even as a hiring freeze has severely cut into the work force. As another respondent describes, "My division has 30 vacant positions that will not be filled for at least a year but probably longer."
But while the work force shrinks, respondents believe that agency leadership continues to interfere with their professional decisions.
· Nearly half of the respondents believe that management would not "back up my professional judgment on a controversial decision, while fully half feel management is not "held accountable to the same degree as staff;"
· Nearly two thirds say agency administrators are not "selected for their knowledge and experience in environmental protection;" and
· Nearly one in three respondents "fear job-related retaliation for presenting to the chain-of-command my professional opinions or assessments if they may differ from management's position."
"With virtually no prompting, the employees of Ohio EPA have shown they are willing to speak out, now the question is whether the taxpayers of Ohio are willing to listen," concluded Wingerter.