PRESIDENT'S COLUMN: What I'm looking for in the next DEQ director

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is now in need of a new leader, due to Dan Wyant's resignation in the wake of the department's mishandling of the Flint drinking water crisis. Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is serving as the interim director until a permanent replacement can be found. So what qualities should a new director bring to this position?

This is what I'm looking for in the next DEQ director–someone who will:

  • Embrace the primary mission of the department: protecting human health and the environment.
  • Aspire to have the number one environmental protection department in the country.
  • Set clear goals and objectives, build a transparent implementation plan, and set a clear direction for the department.
  • Empower employees.
  • Reconnect the department to scientists and health experts, and break down siloed programs and divisions.
  • Rebuild public trust in the department.

Protect public health
First and foremost, the new director must accept that the primary mission of the department is to protect human health and the environment. No other agency has that role. There is often a false dichotomy created between environmental protection and economic development, as if protecting human health and the environment does not support a vibrant economy. There is an obvious need, especially around permitting, to balance environmental protection and economic development. However, there has been a noticeable shift away from environmental protection toward an emphasis on economic development. The state has a department responsible for economic development–it's called the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. I don't remember their mission having a similar concern for both economic development and environmental protection.

The next director of the DEQ must be aspirational (and inspirational); they must aspire to develop the top environmental protection agency in the country. Pure Michigan and the mission of protecting our residents, great outdoors and high quality of life depend on it. Aspiring to be number one will help to attract and retain the best and brightest employees.

The new leader must develop clear policy goals and a clear implementation plan to accomplish these goals in a transparent manner. They should be well-versed in the issues and policies involved in environmental protection, and must set a clear direction for the department. They must ensure that staff has the necessary resources, skill sets and experience to complete the mission, goals and objectives of the department.

Empower employees with clear criteria
They must empower employees to make decisions, given clear expectations and well-formulated and understood criteria. This is especially true in permitting programs. A business or permit applicant wants predictability and clear expectations of what is required to get their permit. If they do X, Y and Z, they will know the outcome; if they choose to do something less, or different, than X, Y and Z, then they know it is they who are rolling the dice. The same goes for the public. They should know the outcome based upon the information that is being submitted and reviewed. Likewise, staff needs to know what is clearly required of the permit applicant and what they need to make a decision.

What is often lost in these debates over environmental protection and economic development, as it relates to the permitting process, is the fact that you need a permit only when you are going to do something that has a negative impact on the environment or human health, i.e., emit known pollutants into the air, water or land, or fill in a wetland, etc. If you are not emitting a pollutant or impacting an important natural feature, you don't need a permit from the DEQ. The whole point of the permit process is to ensure the activity will not have an unacceptable impact on human health and the environment.

Reconnect with scientists and health experts
The new director must also reconnect the department with other related departments like DNR and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that decisions are being made with good input from scientists and natural resources and health experts. We cannot let decisions that impact human health and the environment be made in policy silos when additional information and perspectives can greatly improve our decision-making outcomes.

Lastly, the new director must rebuild trust that has been broken with the public and within their own department. The public needs to have confidence that when a decision is made, they can trust that the department was truly looking out for human health and the environment. The director must inspire DEQ employees to fully embrace their pursuit of the department's mission to protect human health and the environment, secure the resources and expertise needed to achieve that mission, and make sure that together with allied partners they get the job done. That is the only way we can assure that the state can attract the best and the brightest in one of the most important missions that any public entity has, protecting the health of its residents and the quality of life they deserve.

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