'Meltdown' continues at state agency

  Goodbyes are getting more and more frequent at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

When attorney Ashley Olivero resigned from the agency at the end of March, describing a "museum of degradations inflicted upon the rank and file DEQ employees," she joined seven other staffers who have angrily quit since the agency was formed three years ago.

The Montana state Legislature created the Department of Environmental Quality three years ago by pulling staff from three other agencies. Legislators hoped to streamline decision-making by putting DEQ in charge of enforcing Montana's environmental laws. But critics both inside and outside DEQ say the director and deputy director of the agency, appointed by Gov. Mark Racicot, have been soft on industry and inconsistent in their enforcement policies.

"It's lousy management," says Cathy Seigner, former communications manager for the DEQ, who quit with a fiery resignation letter in November (HCN, 12/22/97). "There's a lack of political will to do what they're supposed to do. There's another agenda out there that's been determined by the governor."

Seigner's public resignation prompted a two-month investigation by Racicot, who dismissed Seigner's charges as "unfounded." DEQ administrators maintain that turnover within the agency is not above normal.

But in March, a four-page letter summarizing the work of a consultant who had studied the DEQ was unintentionally handed out at a public meeting and reported in the Helena, Mont., Independent Record. "There appears to be a debilitating syndrome of anger, mistrust, (and) sadness," wrote consultant Jennifer Elison, who worked with agency staffers for five months. "Without fail, every single work group that I have interacted with thus far at the DEQ has spoken of distrusting management."

Former employees believe the resignations will continue. "The political machinery that decided to make the agency more friendly to industry didn't realize the people in the agency had deep commitments," says Kevin Keenan, former head of water quality enforcement, who left the agency in May 1996 after 24 years with the state. "That's why DEQ is in a meltdown. They didn't count on the fact that we would refuse this manipulation."

* Michelle Nijhuis

High Country News Classifieds