January 30-- The following opinion by Tom Crawford of "The Georgia Report" is furnished by the Ogeechee Riverkeepers.
The makeover of the DNR board is completed
The state Board of Natural Resources completed a historic changeover this week as it said goodbye to an environmental advocate and installed in one of its top positions a lobbyist whose firm’s clients include a utility that is one of Georgia’s largest sources of air pollution.
Board members voted formally on Tuesday to elect Philip Watt, a non-practicing physician from Thomasville, as their new chairman. They also elected Rob Leebern, a lobbyist with Troutman Sanders Strategies, as the new vice chairman.
Watt replaces Earl Barrs, the board chairman in 2011 who was removed from the panel when Gov. Nathan Deal decided not to reappoint him. Warren Budd, last year’s vice chairman who normally would have rotated to the chairmanship, was also ousted from the panel when Deal refused to reappoint him to another term as well.
Budd was booted from the board after he spoke out against two initiatives that are important to Deal.
Budd expressed skepticism about Deal’s proposals to build more reservoirs in North Georgia and he also criticized the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for imposing a miniscule fine of only $1 million on a textile company that discharged chemicals into the Ogeechee River, causing the largest fish kill in Georgia’s history (the company could have been subject to fines of more than $90 million).
“I was told to hush up on both of them,” Budd said. “I was warned and I didn’t do it, and that is why I’m off.”
When reporters contacted the governor’s office about Budd’s removal from the board, Deal’s spokesman issued this reply: “If anyone on any board considers himself indispensable, this is what educators call a ‘teachable moment.’ It takes an eyebrow-raising amount of self-regard for someone to suggest publicly that, out of 10 million Georgians, only he or she brings a diverse viewpoint to a board.”
He added that the governor wanted to appoint board members “who are excited team players ready to carry out his agenda for our state.”
The removal of Budd from the Board of Natural Resources is a watershed moment, if you’ll pardon the expression, for the board that oversees and sets policy for both the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Division.
Budd was one of the few remaining board members who could realistically be considered a conservationist dedicated to protecting the state’s environment and natural resources.
Deal has made it clear that environmental protection is not the primary mission of either DNR or EPD anymore. Both agencies are now expected to advance the cause of economic development and job creation, even though state government already has a Department of Economic Development headed by Commissioner Chris Cummiskey.
The change in mission is vividly illustrated by the installation of Rob Leebern as the new vice chairman in place of Budd.
Budd is considered to be an environmentally sensitive conservationist. Ogeechee Riverkeeper Diana Wedincamp described him as a “friend of the rivers.”
Leebern is a skilled political operative who’s been working inside the Washington beltway for years, first as chief of staff for Sen. Saxby Chambliss and a top fundraiser for George W. Bush, and more recently with the Washington office of Troutman Sanders.
One of Troutman Sanders’ biggest clients over the years has been Georgia Power, which operates two coal-fired power generation facilities in Georgia, Plant Scherer and Plant Bowen, that are ranked by the EPA as America’s largest sources of greenhouse gases.
Whenever Georgia Power goes to the Public Service Commission to secure a rate increase or fight off demands for a risk-sharing mechanism to minimize cost overruns on their nuclear plants, Troutman Sanders partner Kevin Greene is the man who argues their case.
“It is outrageous to make a lobbyist for the biggest polluter in Georgia and the biggest user of water an officer of the DNR board,” said Mark Woodall of the Sierra Club of Georgia. “I’ve been going to these meetings for 25 years and this is by far the worst board, in terms of balancing the public and private interests of the state of Georgia, that I’ve ever seen.”
The changeover on the DNR board has been happening gradually since Sonny Perdue took office as governor in 2003.
When Perdue was first sworn in as the state’s chief executive, there were three prominent environmental advocates on the DNR board: former lieutenant governor Pierre Howard, Columbus attorney Jim Butler and Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. All three of those people were removed from the board during the course of Perdue’s administration.
Howard was the first to go. In 2003, the Republicans who assumed control of the Georgia Senate refused to confirm nearly 180 people who had been appointed to state boards and commissions by former governor Roy Barnes, a Democrat, during his last year in office (2002). Howard was among that mass of people removed from state boards.
Perdue tried to replace Butler on the DNR board in 2003 before Butler’s term had expired. Butler promptly sued the governor in Fulton County Superior Court, where a judge ordered Butler’s reinstatement to the board. When Butler’s term expired two years later, Perdue then was legally allowed to appoint a replacement.
Perdue did reappoint Bethea to the DNR board, but she was removed from the panel in the same manner as Howard when the Republican majority in the Georgia Senate declined to confirm her reappointment.
Perdue also appointed Budd, a Newnan insurance agent, to the DNR board in 2005.
“He knew where I stood,” Budd said of Perdue. “He allowed a diversity of people on there. He appointed people that were pro-conservation. Gov. Barnes did that, too.”
Budd is a lifelong Republican who invokes Teddy Roosevelt as the kind of Republican who believed in conservation. He says his interest in environmental issues was sparked as a young man when his father, Methodist minister Candler Budd, gave him copies of the Rachel Carson books Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us.
“That’s true conservatism,” Budd said. “Conservatism is conserving what’s good.”
There was another indication this week of just how deeply involved lobbyists are going to be in setting environmental policy for the state over the next few years.
One of the most talked-about social events of the week among capitol observers was a dinner sponsored by several lobbyists Wednesday night for members of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
The dinner took place at the Parish restaurant in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood and the event was staked out by several environmental activists, as well as by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and a photographer. At one point, we’re told, an environmentalist attempted to give Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), the committee chair, a list of Georgia’s “Dirty Dozen” polluted waterways.
According to an email invitation sent to committee members, the event’s sponsors included Georgia Power, the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Joe Tanner and Associates, the Georgia Conservancy, the Georgia Chemistry Council, the Georgia Agribusiness Council, the Georgia Forestry Association, the Georgia Poultry Federation, AGL Resources, the Georgia Mining Association, and the Georgia Paper and Forest Producers Association.
On the same day that the elegant dinner was held for the legislators, the new vice chairman of the DNR board, Leebern, proposed that Georgia’s top environmental regulator be given a $20,000 bump in his annual salary.
Leebern made a motion for the DNR board to increase the salary of EPD Director Jud Turner — a former lobbyist — to $175,000 a year. His motion passed by a unanimous vote of the board.
© 2012 by The Georgia Report