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DENR employee resigns in style, cites 'extremist Republican agenda'

Posted September 4, 2013 5:08 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2013 5:52 p.m. EDT

— After almost 25 years at the state's environmental regulatory agency under five different governors, Susan Wilson called it quits last week – and she wasn't shy about the reasons.

In response to a Labor Day weekend note from Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla, Wilson sharply criticized his new direction for the agency, which Skvarla has said should be focused on customer service.

"Between your inappropriate mission statement, the dismantling of the Division of Water Quality, and HB74 (along with a few other gems from this session's NCGA), I see no reason to continue here – because my own mission – to assist all citizens and protect those that don't have a voice, would be compromised," Wilson, who worked as a water quality regulator based in Asheville, wrote.

She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

House Bill 74 is sweeping regulatory reform legislation that, among other things, relaxes many landfill operation rules.

DENR Communications Director Drew Elliot said Skvarla plans to respond to Wilson privately, but the note won't have an effect on the department's new strategy.

"Nothing's going to change in our mission statement based on one person's email," Elliot said.

Outgoing employees of DENR say morale is low at many of the departments, such as the newly restructured Division of Water Resources. The division merged with Water Quality this summer, and that ongoing reorganization means some employees will lose their jobs.

In July, Water Resources Director Tom Reeder gave his employees an ultimatum: Change the legislature's perception of the division or face more interference from lawmakers.

"We're only getting a six- to nine-month reprieve, and we've got to get out ahead of this problem, and we've got to do it now," Reeder said in the video message. "We don't have any choice about this. By next spring, we have to have turned our public perception around."

Skvarla's Labor Day note was actually congratulating staff on their progress toward changing that perception over the last eight months.

"I just received a customer quote saying, 'This is the way government is supposed to work,' and another that said, 'This very large ship is turning on a dime,'" Skvarla wrote. "We are just beginning to make positive things happen at DENR, and it is all because of you!"

That didn't sit well with Wilson, who accused Skvarla and Reeder of pushing out good people and dismantling environmental programs to benefit permitted polluters.

"I'm all about customer service (as the majority of employees in DWQ are, and have always been), but that just seems to be a smokescreen for a very extremist Republican agenda," Wilson wrote in the message, obtained by WRAL News last week.

With almost 4,000 employees, Elliot said it's not surprising that some disagree with the secretary's choices. 

"By and large, we have seen a tremendous response among the rank-and-file to the emphasis on customer service," Elliot said.

He also pointed to survey results published in late June that show a 20 percent improvement in customer service ratings over 2011. Almost 60 percent of that survey, according to a release, were permit holders and consultants. Environmental advocates and government employees were among the 371 people surveyed, but the release doesn't say how many.

The complete survey and methodology have not yet been released.

As for morale, Elliot said there's bound to be uncertainty and insecurity at an organization undergoing structural change. Managers and division directors are focused right now on "making sure we have the right people in the right places," he said.

But he attributed the expertise and experience of DENR employees for the changes the department is already starting to see.

"You don't get to that point – to turn an organization around on a dime – without the assistance of the employees," Elliot said. "The senior leadership can't do that. It's the rank-and-file who have stepped up."

Wilson ended her missive with a special nod to those rank-and-filers – a YouTube supercut of office worker meltdowns set to Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It."

Read the letter and view the video below.


Dear John,

Thanks so much for the note regarding Labor Day - you have always been timely with these, unlike some of your predecessors.

You and I are going to part ways today. I had a great "gig" here in the regional office - I had a great boss, great co-workers, I was still learning a good bit, and the good days were always outweighing the bad days. I was pretty certain (after my first 5 years) that I could outlast any administration the governor could appoint. I had no problem with the Martin administration - he was a man of science and no extremist.

Between your inappropriate mission statement, the dismantling of the Division of Water Quality, and HB74 (along with a few other gems from this session's NCGA), I see no reason to continue here - because my own mission - to assist all citizens and protect those that don't have a voice, would be compromised.

I was a good regulator - I had a bit of distrust for both sides of the aisle - which made me regulate evenly and with common sense and fair judgment. Over the past 24 years I've had the privilege to have worked with some of the most intelligent, articulate, and respected environmental scientists and engineers - I'd put them up against my friends in the private sector any day of the week. But the disdain for them (and me) by this administration is too much to bear.

When you pushed our reasonable, right-leaning WQ Director out, I knew we were in trouble. When you guys (and they are mostly guys...) pushed out a very thoughtful and judicial Environmental Management Commission chair, I knew we were moving into a sand pit that we weren't going to dig out of easily. When you, along with your "great Tom Reeder", decided to cleave off the stormwater programs and move it to Land Resources, who have never been trained for such..nor do they much care about WQ, I knew it was time to leave. I'm sure the 401 Water Quality program is next (especially since you said we should be more like TX and SC).

I'm all about customer service (as the majority of employees in DWQ are, and have always been), but that just seems to be a smokescreen for a very extremist republican agenda.

Likely there will be some uptick in the business environment in the next few years (mainly because the economy has started to recover from the disaster your friends on Wall Street created). But when the hot summers and the drought years come back, and we get fish kills again, and maybe there's fracking going on in the sandhills - it will be the fine folks at DENR who will get blamed for the chaos. The politicians and their appointees, that did the dismantling and created the chaos, will be long gone. We know the drill.

For my brothers and sisters in the Division of WATER QUALITY (the so called "seat warmers") who don't have the option to be able to move on, due to various obligations and a destroyed economy, let me leave you with a video I pilfered from the internet 'cause I didn't have the tools to make my own.

You can view this while I gather up my toothbrush and grab my loincloth to start heading out the door.

Thanks,

Susan