Trenton — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has formally rejected a petition to give the public notice of its meetings with lobbyists and to post appointment calendars of its top officials, according to an agency ruling released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action by DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson was dated the same day, July 2, 2007, the PEER petition for rulemaking was first published for public review in the July 2, 2007 New Jersey Register.
“I guess the negative consequences of official secrecy is something that DEP does not think merits any serious thought or the slightest bit of public input,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting Commissioner Jackson claimed that her same-day decision came only “after careful consideration.” “The public should know who DEP is meeting with to discuss protection of public health and the environment. Given several recent examples of behind-the-scenes shenanigans with politically-connected insiders, a little sunshine is more than warranted.”
The PEER petition urged three major changes to promote openness in DEP decision-making:
- Notice of Meetings. DEP convenes closed-door meetings with lobbyists and designated insiders with no public attendance or publication of meeting agendas. Jackson’s refusal claimed meetings must stay confidential as a matter of “executive privilege and the deliberative process privilege”;
- Publication of Top Officials’ Calendars. The DEP Commissioner and top deputies routinely make decisions on enforcement and other pollution control policies in meetings with corporate lobbyists and executives, often from the same companies that are charged with violations. Jackson defended shielding appointment calendars on the grounds that it “implicates the privacy interests” of attendees. Tellingly, she also argued that revealing the “identity and the sequence of the persons with whom the Department senior staff consult could reveal the substance or direction or the mental processes of the Commissioner and Department staff”; and
- Repeal Gag Orders Forbidding Staff from Answering Questions by Media and Public. Under current DEP rules, agency scientists and other specialists are barred from speaking without prior approval from the agency Press Office. Jackson maintained that any “issues” should be raised within the chain-of-command, noting that there are also whistleblower statutes. New Jersey whistleblower law does not, however, protect employee disclosures about threats to public health, manipulation of science or gross mismanagement, among other topics.
As a matter of both law and policy, the federal government and many states make available the same calendar and meeting information sought by the PEER petition. Further, lobbyist communications are considered part of the public record by federal agencies and most states. Moreover, the DEP assertion of “privacy interests” of lobbyists runs counter to New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission rules which require disclosure of any communications with DEP managers.
“The DEP is supposed to be doing the people’s business so its internal workings should be able to withstand public scrutiny,” Wolfe added, noting the parallels between the positions taken on the need for secrecy by Commissioner Jackson and Vice President Dick Cheney. “It is precisely because so many DEP decisions are inexplicable that the public needs to know what ‘mental processes’ could have possibly produced them.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.