[Sidebar] June 3 - 10, 1999

[Features]

The answer man

Jan H. Reitsma seems like the right man at the right time for Rhode Island's problem-plagued Department of Environmental Management. But that doesn't mean change is going to be easy

by Ian Donnis

[Jan Reitsma] Intrigued by the question, Jan H. Reitsma teases it out: How would his 25-year-old self -- the activist who cut his teeth in Amsterdam amid the radicalized student movement of the late '60s -- view the 50-year-old administrator who now heads what has invariably been described as Rhode Island's beleaguered Department of Environmental Management?

A few weeks into his $93,000-a-year job as DEM's director, Reistma recounts how a colleague asked if he was settling in. "I'm not sure this job is about settling in, and I hope not. That has a lot to do with being an activist in my soul" -- about remaining consciously opposed, he says, to the very concept of settling in. "I reconcile it that way."

Inspiring words for a state bureaucracy in need of dynamic leadership. And Reitsma, who is well respected within the environmental community, has the credentials to back up his earnest outlook. No slouch at navigating different worlds, the Dutch native worked at Save the Bay (after writing his senior thesis at Brown on civic involvement in environmental decision-making) before joining the downtown Boston law firm of Choate Hall & Stewart, and later landing the number two job in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. As evidenced by his background, Reitsma -- an environmentalist and experienced manager who's comfortable in working with business -- seems like the right man at the right time for DEM.

But he still faces formidable challenges in taking the helm of an agency which can be, as predecessor Andrew McLeod told AP last November in a parting salvo of frustration, "a meat grinder, and the director is the meat." McLeod came on the job in August 1997, planning to bring major reforms to DEM. But in leaving 15 months later, he cited sustained legislative attacks and an inadequate amount of political support from Governor Lincoln Almond. (Almond, however, says McLeod never discussed such concerns with him before going public. The governor attributes McLeod's grousing to his disappointment over not being reappointed as DEM's director.)

Although he's DEM's third director since February 1995, Reitsma evinces no concern about the tensions that have wracked the agency. Rather, he takes at face value expressions of support from legislators, and a vow by Almond that he will back environmental protection and economic development with equal vigor. "That can be a lot of sloganeering, but I detect there is a sincere belief for that in the governor's office," Reitsma says.

Indeed, after DEM has faced a crucible of criticism, staffing cuts and other difficulties in recent years, a consensus has coalesced that it's time to leave the agency's problem-plagued prefix in the past. Nonetheless, Reitsma still faces considerable challenges in moving DEM forward and invigorating what many observers see as a lethargic bureaucracy. And then there's the looming 800-pound gorilla of local environmental issues, Quonset Point Partners' anticipated and controversial proposal to site a large load center port in North Kingstown.

Cynthia Giles, chairwoman of the Sierra Club of Rhode Island, says Reitsma faces three significant overarching tasks: advocating against ongoing efforts in the General Assembly to weaken DEM; rallying financial and political support from Almond; and making internal changes at DEM, where workers have been demoralized by several years of legislative battering.

"It's going to take a person of considerable will and determination to turn that around," Giles says. "We have heard from people in Massachusetts that Jan might be a person with those qualities, and we're hopeful that he is. But as yet, I'd say he's largely untested, and I think how DEM addresses these bills in the General Assembly is going to be a challenge for him, and will also tell us something about his agenda."

IT WAS HERE IN RHODE ISLAND, as an older undergraduate at Brown in the late '70s and early '80s, that Reitsma developed his interest in the environment. Caught up in the student movement of the late '60s, he dropped out of college in Holland to work in community activism, mostly in Amsterdam, and a string of other jobs before a romantic liaison led him to the Ocean State. Now he is returning, buying a home in Barrington with his wife, Carol Meeker, and their three-year-old twins.

During a recent interview in his office in the Foundry building, which offers a view of nearby traffic on Interstate 95 and construction of the Providence Place Mall, Reitsma is affable, with a can-do attitude and a certain reserve of intensity. He is comfortable in talking one minute about student activism in Europe and, the next, about incentivizing environmental compliance among businesses.

Reitsma says he plans to move DEM forward by striving for initial successes, such as further streamlining the agency's permitting process (which covers a panoply of activities, from creating an individual septic system to affecting wetlands and handling hazardous waste). He wants to lift the spirits of employees by tapping the vein of motivation that initially led them into environmental work. "Can you get excited about that -- the department you work for?" he asks, by way of demonstration. "Maybe I'm naive, but I believe that's one way of getting your staff morale up. Everyone seems to welcome that, and I don't believe that's based on lip service."

DEM, with a $70 million annual budget and about 540 employees, is no doubt thirsting for this brand of leadership. In recent years, the agency has drawn fire from businesses and residents for being too zealous, and from environmentalists and the US Environmental Protection Agency for lax enforcement. The latter situation grew so serious that the EPA threatened to take control of the state's hazardous waste program before deciding against the move in April.

"We remain concerned with the inadequate performance that we have witnessed in DEM's major programs in the past year," John DeVillars, chief of the EPA's New England office, wrote at the time. "EPA will not accept improvements made in one program that come at the expense of performance of another."

On the other end, DEM has been subjected to withering criticism during meetings of the Kennedy Commission, chaired by state Representative Brian P. Kennedy (D-Hopkinton), which provided a forum for subjects of enforcement action and others with an animus against DEM to publicly excoriate the agency. "The witnesses were stacked in one direction," says former DEM director Timothy Keeney, who cited unrelated reasons when he left in 1997 for a private sector job closer to his home in Connecticut. "That made the department look like it was less effective than it really was." (Kennedy, however, says environmentalists chose not to testify and that Keeney blocked DEM employees from doing so. "Despite all the criticism the commission took over a period of time, many of the issues that we said were problems came to a head," he says, because of the scrutiny and are now on their way to being ameliorated.)

DEM's permitting process -- one of the most common means by which the public encounters the agency -- has also ranged from cumbersome to Kafkaesque, critics say. "They're getting better," says Joe Frisella, an engineer, surveyor and erosion control specialist who chairs the environmental committee of the Rhode Island Builders Association. "They're becoming more sensitive to the needs of the public. However, my concern is that the permitting process is way too long" -- about six months for an individual sewage disposal system.

Into the breach steps Reitsma, who, as director of the Environmental Policy Act unit at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, was credited with bringing a consensus-building approach to the environmental review for such megaprojects as Boston's Big Dig and terminal expansion at Logan Airport. It could sound like so much rhetoric coming from some officials, but Reitsma has the credibility to be convincing when he says, "Environmental protection really cannot work unless we empower people in the community to work with us."

After DEM has been bedraggled by increases in violations, a backlog of complaints and an exodus of experienced staff, "I think they can only go uphill from here, and from what we've heard of the new director, it sounds very promising," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C. "I think the key will be the level of support he receives from the governor." Ruch also says, "There are a cadre of top managers who should either be moved or removed, and they should start bringing people in who can get the desired results."

A true believer when it comes to steps that citizens and government can take to aid the environment (he helped to institute Rhode Island's first-in-the-nation mandatory curbside recycling program in 1988), Reitsma also believes that economic development can occur without causing unacceptable harm to the environment.

This centrist philosophy was music to the collective ears of the state Senate, where Reitsma's nomination sailed through to a unanimous confirmation in April. Asked about the outlook for reform, Senate Majority Leader Paul S. Kelly (D-North Smithfield) says, "I'm very optimistic. Andy McLeod was a good public relations guy, but I think his hands were tied in many respects, and I think his experience did not come near Jan Reitsma's."

It's only going to help Reitsma that Almond, criticized by environmentalists like Giles and Save The Bay's Curt Spalding for what they call a previous lack of support for environmental protection, is looking to burnish his green record with a $50 million bond issue for open space preservation and is eager to create a strong DEM. Almond, who says many of DEM's problems predated his arrival in office, adds, "I think what we're trying to do is to come out of where we were in the early '90s and put more resources in."

The anticipated load center port plan for Quonset Point, which critics contend will seriously harm Narragansett Bay and erode the quality of life in South County towns, will be a telling test case when it comes to Almond's commitment to balancing environmental protection and economic development. Reitsma, who expressed doubts about the viabilty of the megaport plan, says he hasn't faced any pressure for DEM to sign off on a particular project. Rather, he says, "I think it's important for us to be part of a team that looks for the best possible way" to maximize economic development and minimize adverse environmental impacts at Quonset Point.

AT THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY, legislation that would enable the DEM director to hire his own management team of unclassified employees has died in the past, but this is seen as a requisite for meaningful progress at the agency. Because of the attacks on DEM in recent years, "I think the people in the department might be reluctant to charge off in a new direction," Keeney says. "They've been beaten down so many times. Jan's biggest challenge is going to be motivating and incentivizing [DEM employees] and finding the leaders to help him move in the direction that he wants to move."

The point is echoed by Kennedy, who says, "before [Reitsma] took the job, I mentioned that his biggest challenge would be getting those people who are so entrenched in the organization to adapt to his type of policies as director."

With four DEM reorganization bills pending in the legislative home stretch, environmentalists fear that some of the legislation could weaken the agency by requiring it to consider the economic impact of environmental decisions. Reitsma takes issue with elements of some of the legislation, but is less concerned about the impact. While federal law could preclude accounting for the economic impact of environmental decision-making, "I personally have no problem with that," he says. "After all, we are routinely quoted as saying the economy and the environment go hand in hand."

In spite of his open manner, Reitsma has the sense to say it's too soon to respond to what others see as a need to shake up DEM's management ranks. Instead, he talks about the need for the agency to do a better job with its compliance and inspection programs, to bring consistency to environmental enforcement, and to expand its involvement in curbing sprawl and preserving open space.

In making the move from Massachusetts, where he was most recently undersecretary for environmental policy and programs, Reitsma says he was attracted by the chance to move into the top environmental job in a state whose small size should make it easier to bring about changes for the better. In recent years, Little Rhody's size hasn't meant a whit when it came to clearing DEM's difficulties, but Reitsma's fans think that's about to change.

Trudy Coxe, who first met Reitsma when he was an intern at Save the Bay, recalled being so impressed by his work ethic, intelligence and integrity that she insisted on hiring him after he completed law school at Northeastern University, despite lacking funds for the position. Coxe, who worked with DEM's new director when she was Massachusetts' environmental secretary, says, "If he brings those qualities way up to the front, he will do a lot to benefit the DEM, the environment of Rhode Island, and all the relations that have gone astray over the last couple of years."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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