Three weeks ago, the largest regional division of the state Department of Environmental Protection got a new boss, Mary Yeargan. Her first order of business at the Tampa district office: launch a reorganization that will become a model for shaking up the entire agency.
Some DEP employees are likely to lose their jobs.
In looking at the DEP's Tampa district from 2007 to 2011, Yeargan pointed out, "permit applications went down 50 percent while staff levels went down only 4 percent." As a result, she said, "there's a concern that we need to be more responsible financially."
Asked if that meant the Tampa staff should be cut by 50 percent, Yeargan replied, "We don't have a number in mind."
But top DEP officials have already proposed the Legislature cut 36 of the Tampa district's 163 employees in the next budget, and cut 42 employees from its other districts.
The DEP has six districts: Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southeast, South and Southwest, which is headquartered in Tampa. That district, which stretches from Citrus County down to Sarasota County and over to Polk County, has always been the biggest one because it deals with phosphate miners, power plants, incinerators, sewer plants and other industries that sometimes leak pollution.
Yeargan sent her staff a memo on Aug. 29 spelling out that the DEP's statewide reorganization goals include making "all district offices relatively equal in geographic extent with an equivalent number of positions" as well as to "provide for increased consistency" among the districts and coordination with Tallahassee. In addition, the agency wants to "provide improved service to our customers by increasing our teamwork between and within our divisions."
To Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who now heads up the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, what the agency is doing is "trying to take a cookie-cutter approach, which doesn't benefit the environment."
To shrink the Tampa district just to match the size of the other districts seems arbitrary, he contended. And he pointed out that a reduction in new permits does not mean the overall workload for dealing with existing permit holders has shrunk.
Yet the Tampa district's size is one reason why the DEP reorganization is starting there, according to Yeargan.
"The reorganization will occur in all district offices," she wrote in her memo. "We are first because we are currently the largest district (geographically and by staffing) and we have recently had personnel changes in the director's office."
Yeargan is a geologist who spent 12 years working for Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission, where director Rick Garrity called her "rock solid." She was in charge of the brownfields program, which focuses on cleaning up polluted land so it can be used for development. Garrity said her biggest success was the site where Ikea opened a store in 2009.
She replaced Gary Colecchio in the $113,000-a-year job of running the Tampa district. Colecchio said he spent much of his time quelling complaints that DEP was anti-business because Gov. Rick Scott's administration was intent on ensuring regulation didn't interfere with economic development.
He resigned in May after less than a year as director, citing what he called "a policy shift" that had officials in Tallahassee making decisions that in the past were left to the districts. DEP officials denied that they were trying to centralize all decisionmaking, but said they were trying to promote uniformity among the six districts.
The move to reorganize the agency is part of that. "This is designed to create consistency," explained Patrick Gillespie, a DEP spokesman in Tallahassee.
Yeargan's first step: rewrite the job descriptions for her five division heads — the people in charge of regulating air and water pollution, water supply facilities and wetlands destruction, among other things.
The big change, according to Gillespie, is that those people will no longer oversee compliance with the permits their staffs issue. All compliance and enforcement work will now fall under the district assistant directors, he said.
"It elevates that role and centralizes the focus," Gillespie said. The job is now under 24 people, he said, and "as a result there can be some inconsistency. So now we'll have six people making those decisions."
Yeargan is now requiring her current division heads to reapply for their jobs. "Then once we have our program administrators in place, I'll sit down and talk to them about the next phase," she said. Some employees, she said, "may wind up doing the same job they're already doing."
In her memo, Yeargan sought to reassure the district employees, noting, "It has been said that the Chinese ideogram for 'crisis' is made up of two characters signifying 'opportunity' and 'danger.' I understand that this may seem to some of you as a time of uncertainty or even danger in your career. However, I encourage you to consider it as an opportunity."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.