Raleigh, N.C. — Just weeks after a new secretary took the helm of the state's environmental agency, two top leaders at the department are now out of their posts.
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced Tuesday afternoon that assistant secretaries Mitch Gillespie and Brad Ives have stepped down. As assistant secretary for natural resources, Ives oversaw the state's science museums and zoo, as well as its marine fisheries and parks. Gillespie, a former state legislator often critical of DENR, led the agency's environmental regulatory divisions.
Both men came on board in January 2013 under then-Secretary John Skvarla, who left the agency last month to run the state Commerce Department.
Gov. Pat McCrory tapped long-time DENR regulator Don van der Vaart to head the agency in late December. Formerly a program manager in the agency's air quality division, van der Vaart became a deputy secretary and energy policy adviser in August.
Gillespie will become DENR's first "director of regional outreach" in the Asheville regional office, while Ives stepped down to "pursue other interests," according to a department press release.
Longtime agency regulator Tom Reeder will succeed Gillespie after more than a year as chief of the newly reorganized Division of Water Resources. Mary Joan Pugh, deputy director of the North Carolina Zoo, will serve as assistant secretary for natural resources while the department finds a replacement for Ives. It's actually a return to the role, which she held in the late 1980s under Republican Gov. Jim Martin.
“Tom Reeder is an experienced regulator, manager and longtime DENR employee,” van der Vaart said in a statement. “Tom’s engineering background and extensive regulatory expertise will be an asset in leading DENR’s efforts to provide for clean air, water and land. On the natural resources side, I wish to thank Mary Joan Pugh for taking on this assignment while we initiate a search for the leadership of our natural resource assets.”
DENR spokesperson Drew Elliot said the changes are effective immediately. That leaves the director's position vacant in the water resources division, responsible for ensuring safe drinking water and issuing pollution permits. Elliot said Reeder would still handle any needed director-level decisions in the interim and said that although there is a plan for the division's leadership, it may not be finalized.
He said the leadership change was not a sudden decision but the result of discussions during the leadership transition over the holidays.
"This was the first real full week back in terms of timing," Elliot said. "It's not an unusual time to see these kind of changes."
But Molly Diggins, state director for the Sierra Club, said in a statement that the leaders' "abrupt departure" raises "new red flags" about the future of the agency.
"You expect a change at the top with a new administration," Diggins said in a phone interview Tuesday. "A change midstream of this magnitude suggests a significant change of direction."
As a lawmaker, Gillespie was often critical of state environmental regulators, even plastering a target on his office window circling his view of the the DENR building. But he also advocated more comprehensive study before allowing companies to begin hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas in the state.
In the two years he spent as assistant secretary, Diggins said, Gillespie developed a good working relationship with the conservation community.
"Gillespie, without question, is a very conservative figure but with a good grasp of environmental policy," she said. "He has been a tempering force both in legislature and the administration."
Will Morgan, director of government relations for the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy, praised Ives' work with the state's natural resources divisions. That includes the groundwork he laid for the state parks system's upcoming centennial celebration.
"Over the last two years, Brad Ives has done a great job with the department and we hope it continues in same direction," Morgan said.
Diggins said both men were responsive and "appreciated that environmental policy is complicated."
Elliot said he was "heartened" by those comments, especially given initial criticism of Gillespie's appointment. He said hoped the agency's relationship with environmental groups would continue to be constructive under Reeder, who amid changes to the organization of the department's water quality section sometimes emerged as a controversial figure.
"Our first impressions are not always the correct ones," Elliot said. "I just hope they give him at least as good of a chance as Mitch Gillespie and we'll have the same result."