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1995-2002- DEP Secretary James M. Seif: The Assignment Was Clear - Take The Kick Me! Sign Off DER

James M. Seif served Gov. Tom Ridge as the first Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection from January 1995 to March 2001.

He wrote this retrospective on the environmental accomplishments of the Ridge and Schweiker Administrations and its many partners as an introduction to DEP for the incoming Rendell Administration in January 2003--

The assignment from Gov. Tom Ridge was pretty clear: The DER [Department of Environmental Resources-- later the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources] had become a giant "Kick me!" sign - a magnet for criticism and a liability to whoever sat in the Governor's office - and it had to change.

While its mission was as popular as ever, nobody seemed to think it was doing a good job.

Farmers, business people, municipal officials, conservationists, environmental advocates, legislators from both parties - none had a kind word.

It was not that the Department should win a popularity contest (and a regulatory department should be wary about such a contest), but the public clamor, from all sides, meant the DER had diminished capacity to do its job.

The assignment from a public administration standpoint was equally clear. Just run it well. Improve efficiency; don't spend a dime more than you have to; don't fight with the other Departments; and keep out of jail - the usual things, with the last one unspoken, of course!

It was the policy assignment that was most interesting. What things should be done, by whom, and with what tools, to improve Pennsylvanians' stewardship of their wonderful environmental heritage?

It turns out that the "by whom" was the easiest. The Department had come into existence in 1970 (as had "Big Brother," EPA) to enforce the environmental laws coming onto the books.

Its mission (and most of the public attention and taxpayer dollars) was simply to enforce those laws.

It did so, and the seventies and eighties saw enormous changes for the better in most environmental indicators, the bringing under regulatory control of the big, visible polluters, and a considerable improvement in corporate attitudes.

(It had also done well at its mission of parks and forest stewardship - functions that the Ridge Administration elevated to Cabinet status with the formation of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.)

But the purely regulatory work that put the Department on the map in the beginning was showing its limits. The adversary system is built on conflict, not alliances; it's "us vs. them," rarely "we."

Forming partnerships was certainly not part of the Department's tool kit, and perhaps its internal culture was not exactly "user friendly." To be sure, as mentioned before, popularity was not supposed to be the goal, but it is possible to go too far the other way, and many thought the Department had done so.

Fortunately, friends of the environment are all over Pennsylvania, and if the Department wanted to do things beyond the same old stuff, it had to find those friends.

Over the years, we did.

We found educators - in the Department, in the Department of Education, and in schools, colleges, Scout Troops, among senior citizens - everywhere.

We found business people - managing smart and getting beyond just compliance to sustainability and even zero waste.

We found inventors and venture capitalists who had technical solutions to pollution.

We found people in other nations seeking Pennsylvania's environmental products and know-how, and sending us some of their own.

We found farmers who were proud of their role as "the first environmentalists" and lived up to that tradition.

We found local government officials who created Environmental Advisory Committees, formed alliances across municipal borders and learned about smart growth.

We found environmental leaders whose advocacy and hard work kept us on our toes.

We found architects and builders who taught us and many others how to "build green."

We found other state and federal officials with great ideas, which they generously shared.

We found developers who took land once written off as too polluted to use again, and turned it into new businesses, homes, even parks and open space in communities that needed exactly that kind of boost.

We found legislators eager to help, and change, the Department.

Most happily, we found 3,000 DEP employees whose energy and hard work were a major part of all future success, and who showed as quickly that their reputation was a "bum rap."

It was no accident that, in spite of the strong criticisms of Tom Ridge as a candidate, DEP had a significant percentage of senior people staying on in the new Administration.

That was the "who."

As for how to do it all, we learned a lot.

Enforcement still matters. It's the law, sometimes punishment is the only thing that works, and it's fair to deprive corner cutters of any competitive advantage.

It also helps make all the other tools work better.

Information is critical. Tell everybody everything, through the Update [weekly newsletter], the website, constant meetings and appearances.

And make it accurate; the enforcement data (eFacts) we put on the web - a national first - has made a difference for reporters, policy makers, the regulated community and the general public.

The recently passed water legislation will provide our first reliable baseline information about an increasingly valuable resource.

Government by slogans and factoids serves nobody (except perhaps for those doing the shouting); only facts lead to good policy.

Partnerships with all the people you can find, statewide and nationwide, are even more critical.

Here are three good examples: The Industrial Site Recycling Act, the Governor's 21st Century Environment Commission, and Growing Greener.

The Industrial Site Recycling Act met a traditional department mission - clean up messes - in a non-traditional way, one that involved all parts of the community, restored a valuable asset, and showed the Department had brains and vision to go with its muscle.

The great success of this program was the creation of new capacity in communities, self-confidence inside the Department, and optimism for all who participated.

The Governor's 21st Century Environment Commission brought 40 prominent Pennsylvanians together to help formulate the Administration's environmental policy. This collaborative partnership, found (or created) consensus, energized constituencies and produced a series of recommendations that saw real action.

The most visible of these recommendations was addressed by our third great partnership; it was the legislation we know as Growing Greener.

Growing Greener put real money ($650 million initially) in the hands of real people, to solve real problems. It brought thousands of people, from everywhere, into partnership with each other and the Department, and it will, I hope, continue to do so.

And, finally what were all these people, using all these tools, supposed to do?

Consider just some of what they did:

-- Streamline and eliminate thousands of pages of outdated and counter productive rules - the "Reg Basics Initiative;"

-- The Money Back Guarantee on permit applications - to show that the Department could be efficient;

-- The Environmental Futures Planning Process, to help redirect effort to watersheds, to develop better environmental indicators, and help others to do so;

-- Clean up of thousands of acres of industrial sites and mines;

-- Development and enforcement of tough truck safety standards for trash haulers;

-- Bringing a cost-effective auto emission program directly to motorists' own service stations;

-- Development of innovative geographical information systems, and share them with thousands of others;

-- Discovery and deployment of new mine cleanup techniques;

-- Bringing thousands of new people to the table and;

-- Perhaps most importantly, the beginning of change in the public debate. Forget "us vs. them;" get past the finger pointing and the environmental theatrics that still show up on the evening news; just find out what has to be done, find the people to help - and do it.

Governor Rendell will have many assignments for his DEP Secretary, I'm sure. They may be very different or just variations on our mission.

Either way, it feels good to pass along to the next Secretary the people, tools, and sense of mission that will make for continued success.

Related Articles In This Series:

Feature: 20 Years Of Growing Greener: A Celebration Of Leadership, Partnership, Accomplishment

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge Talks About His Very Personal Connection To Lake Erie And The Need To Work Together To Restore The Great Lakes

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge: Expanding Partnerships To Clean Up The Susquehanna River And The Chesapeake Bay Beyond

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge Joins With Governors Of Delaware, New Jersey, Federal Officials To Establish The Delaware Estuary Program

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge Thanks First Environmental Excellence Award Winning Businesses For Eliminating 1.4 Million Tons Of Waste, Pollution

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge Talks About Rebuilding Pennsylvania's Industrial Heritage Through Land Recycling

1996 - Gov. Tom Ridge Talks About The Vision And Actions Needed To Restore Our Environment At The PA Environmental Council’s Three Rivers Awards

1996 - Department Of Environmental Protection Mission Statement & Statement Of Values

1995-2002 - DEP Secretary David E. Hess: Many New Hands Now Help Protect Penn’s Woods

1995-2002 - Environmental Accomplishments Of The Ridge & Schweiker Administrations

1995-2002: Awards And Recognition For Environmental Programs During The Ridge & Schweiker Administrations

[Posted: December 9, 2019]


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