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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.