Tallahassee —Recent mass-terminations within Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) went far beyond their stated rationale and appear to seriously weaken its anti-pollution enforcement capability, according to an analysis of agency records conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency also claims to have no written records explaining the selection by Scott administration officials of which employees were to be separated and which were to remain.
This October, DEP summarily removed 26 employees from its Southwest District Office in Tampa and eliminated 14 vacant positions, shrinking total workforce by more than a fourth. Agency records show –
- Agency officials told the media that the reason for the cuts was a decline in new permit applications but nearly two-thirds (62%) of fired employees were from the enforcement/compliance divisions. Another fired employee handled both permit and enforcement functions;
- More than three-quarters (77%) of those put on the street were front-line (career-service) employees from all program areas; and
- The average tenure of those removed was in excess of 13 years of service. Seniority did not appear to be a factor as cuts ranged from one 34-year employee to another of only 8 months.
“These records show no management concern about dumping decades of institutional memory out the window and even less concern for the employees themselves,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, noting that one terminated employee was away on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. “There was also no analysis of what effect these cuts will have on the agency’s ability to enforce, administer and monitor compliance with basic anti-pollution laws.”
The DEP records also indicate the excellent performance evaluations of the terminated employees. Overall, the grade point average on their last evaluation was 3.53 on a scale of 1 to 5. Curiously, comments on a few of the evaluations stated matter-of-factly that the employees’ performance had not changed from the previous evaluation period, however, a new grade (which was always lower) was being given because of a change or “recalibration” in the review process. It appears that DEP management had directed that evaluation grades be lowered. One of these comments was actually made by the new District Director on the employee’s evaluation in overriding a direct supervisor’s glowing comments.
Despite these detailed machinations, DEP contends that there are no records setting out the criteria of which employees were to be fired. The firings appear consistent, however, with the approach urged at a DEP management meeting in July 2011 that “Nothing motivates people like losing a job.”
“This has all the earmarks of a political purge rational rather than a rational reallocation of resources,” Phillips added, pointing to new management mantras that environmental staff members are supposed to serve as “job creators.” “The message has been received. DEP employees are frightened they will be fired for even a slight effort to enforce the law. Any complaint from a regulated interest, no matter how unfounded, against a DEP employee is a professional death warrant.”