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Amid protests from citizens, Caperton hires new DEP environmental advocate

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton

Four days after firing the Department of Environmental Protection’s environmental advocate, DEP Secretary Austin Caperton on Tuesday filled the spot, over the objections of dozens of citizen groups who are furious about the removal of Wendy Radcliff from the position and were hoping to at least meet with Caperton before he took further action on the matter.

A little more than an hour after he was sent a letter from 40 environmental and citizen groups protesting Radcliff’s firing, Caperton announced in a news release that he had hired a land broker and conservation consultant, Ed Maguire, to take over the environmental advocate spot. Caperton’s first meeting with key environmental groups isn’t scheduled to take place until next week.

“It’s disconcerting for the new secretary to break with tradition and not consult with the environmental community before deciding on a hire,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “I hope this isn’t an indication of a dismissive attitude among the agency’s leadership toward citizen concerns and input.”

Rosser’s organization was one of those that sent the one-page letter to Caperton — with a copy also provided to Gov. Jim Justice — to say they were “deeply troubled” that Caperton removed Radcliff “without input from the environmental community and the many citizens who turn to that office for assistance in dealing with the complex regulatory programs at the agency.”

“While we understand the environmental advocate serves at the will and pleasure of the secretary, we are confused and frustrated that you saw fit to remove someone who embodies the very heart and soul of the office,” the groups said in their letter.

The DEP news release said that Maguire would start in the environmental advocate post on Wednesday.

Since 1990, Maguire has been president and owner of The Highlands Group Inc., which the DEP news release described as a “land broker and consulting company that specializes in the conservation of undeveloped properties in West Virginia.”

The DEP release also noted that Maguire had served on a task force that “helped secure more than 10,000 acres of land for the Summit Bechtel Reserve for the Boy Scouts of America.” He also recently “assisted in the acquisition of more than 1,200 acres of land in the Gauley River Canyon on behalf of Young Life, an international, non-denominational Christian ministry organization,” the DEP release said.

The Office of Environmental Advocate within the DEP was created by the Legislature in 1994 to help everyday citizens navigate the DEP’s complex regulatory system and to assist agency officials in taking the views of citizens and environmental groups into account in various decisions. The office has recently had three full-time staff and a secretary that is shared with a separate DEP unit created to “safeguard small business’s rights and help them when they have problems with regulatory agencies.”

On Friday, as he completed his second week on the job at the DEP, Caperton abruptly fired Radcliff, the chief of the environmental advocate office, and Kelley Gillenwater, the DEP’s communications director.

DEP issued a statement that said only that Caperton was “restructuring to make our operation more efficient by consolidating roles.” The statement offered no further explanation.

Under state law, the DEP is required to have both an environmental advocate and a public information office. DEP rules, approved by the Legislature, also prohibit the environmental advocate from taking positions against — or in favor of — agency positions, a mandate that would appear to prohibit any consolidation of environmental advocate and communications director functions.

A few hours after announcing the hiring of Maguire, the DEP issued another news release stating that Jake Glance, an agency public information specialist, had been made acting public information officer.

It remains unclear what exactly Caperton was “restructuring” or what roles were consolidated at the DEP.

Caperton has not responded to phone calls or emails, and the DEP has not answered questions that were emailed to the agency about Caperton’s decisions regarding the environmental advocate office. Glance did not respond to emails or phone calls on Tuesday.

Under orders from the governor’s office, Caperton, a former coal industry executive and consultant, has refused Gazette-Mail requests for an interview since his appointment was announced on Jan. 13. Grant Herring, press secretary for Justice, has also not responded to questions about the environmental advocate controversy

In their letter to Caperton and Justice, the citizen groups said, “Transparency is essential to the integrity of your position and public confidence in your agency. We request that you publicly explain the process you will engage in to fulfill your statutory requirements to hire someone for the legally mandated full time position of Environmental Advocate. Ensuring that process will include input from the public is essential.”

The groups had also requested input on how the DEP will fill the environmental advocate role, noting that, traditionally, the DEP had sought input from environmental groups before filling the advocate position.

“At a time when the primary goal of DEP seems to be to benefit the polluters, the environmental advocate is the one person in the agency charged with aiding citizens interested in protecting the environment,” Ciera Pennington, president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, an umbrella group of state organizations, said in a news release. “We call upon DEP Secretary Austin Caperton and Governor Justice to answer our call for dialogue and consultation with those citizens and groups most dedicated to the mission of advocating for the environment.”

Officials from several key state environmental groups said that Caperton scheduled his first meeting with them for Feb. 8. That meeting was to focus on water quality issues, but it is also scheduled the day of Justice’s State of the State address and the start of the 60-day legislative session. By then, much if not all of the administration’s budget and other legislative priorities could already be decided.

On Monday, the day before the official announcement, Caperton was taking Maguire around, introducing him as the DEP’s new environmental advocate, according to agency sources who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Maguire did not return a phone call.

“Ed Maguire has the big idea mentality that West Virginia needs right now,” Caperton said in the agency’s news release. “He has a proven track record of success working with numerous environmental and business groups, and he will be a great asset to this agency and to the citizens we serve.”

Not mentioned in the DEP news release is that Maguire was the first West Virginia director of The Nature Conservancy, a group that has worked to protect many wild and scenic areas of West Virginia.

Cindy Rank, mining chairman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said Tuesday morning that Maguire is a “nice person and an effective negotiator when it comes to the acquisition of special lands and preserving special places.”

“He’s a businessman with an eye for the environment from a business perspective,” Rank said. “I have no doubt his talents and connections could be of value to the DEP, but not as the citizens’ advocate whose position includes focusing on listening to and assisting individuals with problems of poisoned water, diesel fumes, dust and noise and damage from blasting that citizens face every day.

“As originally conceived in 1994, the environmental advocate is someone who is sympathetic to citizens’ concerns no matter how small and is open to helping those individuals through the maze that is DEP,” Rank said. “The advocate is also just that, our advocate to and within DEP, our spokesperson who advocates for us, who makes sure our needs are well represented within agency discussions of environmental policy that most directly affects our lives, no matter how large our neighborhood or narrow our hollow.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at 304-348-1702, or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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