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    Top environmental posts short on experience

    The DEP has passed over applicants seasoned in environmental protection. Its leader defends his picks.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN and JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 23, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- For a dozen years, while Fran Mainella was in charge, Florida's state park system won national awards and attracted millions of visitors. She did such a good job that President George W. Bush picked her to run the National Park Service.

    To replace her, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs passed over experienced applicants from Mainella's own staff and chose someone with no parks experience.

    Florida's new parks director is United Way fundraiser Wendy Spencer, 40, a Republican. DEP Deputy Secretary Bob Ballard invited her to apply and said she was "absolutely tailor-made for this job." Spencer will make $85,000 a year.

    Spencer was chosen over several high-ranking in-house candidates, including two 29-year state parks officials, both Democrats: Mike Bullock, who served as interim parks director when Mainella left, and Ernie Barnett, a natural resources expert who has supervised state lands.

    Also passed over: Ben Harris, a longtime state employee and Republican who has been marketing Florida parks for the past five years.

    Spencer was the only one who listed two prominent Republican politicians as references: Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and Comptroller Bob Milligan.

    One of her jobs, said DEP secretary David Struhs, will be to coordinate more than a thousand volunteers at state parks.

    "There's nobody in the state of Florida better qualified to run a program that is so dependent on volunteers," Struhs said.

    Spencer's selection is just the latest unusual hire by the agency since Gov. Jeb Bush picked Struhs to run the DEP three years ago. Some top jobs at the agency have gone to people with more personal and political connections than practical experience in protecting the environment.

    The new Republican officials include Ballard himself, hired as deputy secretary for land and recreation despite no experience in environmental regulation; DEP ombudsman Benjamin Brumberg, an optometrist and longtime Bush supporter hired at the behest of the governor's office; Jena Brooks, hired to run the Office of Greenways and Trails, though her experience is in education and lobbying; external affairs director Bob Sparks, whose last job was as a spokesman for the Florida Republican Party; DEP spokeswoman Lucia Ross, who came to the Bush administration from the Central Intelligence Agency; and Spencer.

    Spencer said that although she doesn't have direct experience managing parks, she has contacts with corporations, state agencies, local communities and in the Legislature. Those contacts, she said, will help her promote and fund parks.

    Among her early ideas: a corporate "Adopt-A-Park" program, similar to the Adopt-A-Highway program, where corporations would be advertised on small signs in the parks, in exchange for financial or volunteer help.

    "As belt-tightening is going on, we're going to have to look at public-private partnerships," Spencer said. "Our first priority is protecting Florida's natural resources."

    She has obvious enthusiasm for the job and is distressed that her hiring might be considered political. She notes that she worked for a Democratic congressman in south Florida, and she sees her mission now as "totally bipartisan."

    From the outside, the DEP's hiring trend sounds alarm bells among environmentalists. It's "troubling," said Steve Medina, a former DEP attorney and agency critic who represents the activist group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He said the DEP's hirings may lead to agency actions based on politics, not science.

    "That's not going to reassure people," Medina said. "It symbolizes to them that the mission is secondary to politics."

    Audubon vice president Charles Lee said he was scratching his head over Spencer's hiring. Sierra Club activist Judy Hancock, who monitors Florida's public-lands programs, called it "surprising."

    "If they hire someone whose experience is in promotions, I'm afraid the natural resources are going to be overlooked," Hancock said.

    Struhs said his philosophy is to hire good managers who will then "rely on the experts in the field."

    "We bring in people who can uplift and take advantage of our strength, which is the career professionals who make up 95 percent of DEP," Struhs said.

    And, he said, he has hired and promoted many people at the DEP who do have experience in environmental regulation, including deputy secretary Allan Bedwell, a friend of Struhs' who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the first Bush presidency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Struhs also tapped Teri Donaldson, a respected environmental prosecutor, away from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa and made her the DEP's general counsel.

    Struhs also said he has installed people with long environmental careers as heads of the DEP's regional offices around the state.

    "Our record speaks for itself, if you look at it in its totality," Struhs said.

    * * *

    Struhs hired Ballard for the $106,518-a-year job as DEP deputy secretary in 1999, even though Ballard had no environmental experience.

    Ballard, 44, a Republican, is a former state Education Department Cabinet aide. Before that, he owned a restaurant and worked for the Marriott hotel chain. He said he felt as if he knew about supervising state lands because "our family when I was younger owned a resort-type cabin thing in Wisconsin on a lake that was like a park."

    Ballard's family also has strong political connections.

    His brother Brian, once chief of staff for former Gov. Bob Martinez, is a Tallahassee lobbyist whose clients include billboard companies and a major utility. His sister is Republican Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who announced plans last year to oust state Supreme Court justices who ruled for Democratic candidate Al Gore during the presidential recount.

    Ballard said the DEP was "very accepting" of him when he started.

    Ballard also took credit for hiring Eva Armstrong, a former Audubon Society lobbyist and Cabinet aide, to run the DEP's multimillion-dollar land-buying program, even though she had no real estate experience. Armstrong, 48, is a Republican.

    "I was looking for a great manager and a great listener, and she's going to town," Ballard said.

    The common thread among Ballard, Greenways & Trails director Brooks, and Armstrong is that they have all been lobbyists. Ballard said that is an essential skill at the DEP these days, and Spencer's promotions experience was a major reason for giving her the parks job.

    "You have to sell the message to the Legislature to get the money you need to run the park system," Ballard said. "Being a lobbyist is part of the job."

    But the DEP already has a full-time lobbyist, Mike Joyner, 37, a Republican, whose $100,418-a-year salary makes him one of its highest-paid employees. Before he was hired in 1999, Joyner lobbied for the timber industry.

    * * *

    Anyone who might complain about how the DEP is run these days would talk to the agency's ombudsman, Brumberg, 53. His job is to help people navigate the state bureaucracy.

    Until 1999, Brumberg had been an optometrist, a folk singer and, more importantly, a longtime Bush supporter.

    "Benji was very active on (Bush's) behalf and let him know of his desire to serve in some capacity," said DEP external affairs director Sparks.

    Brumberg "was brought to our attention by the governor's office," Sparks said. "They said, 'Here's someone to look at.' "

    Brumberg, a Republican, said he did not apply for a specific job but let the governor's office know he was interested in the environment. Sparks and Struhs picked Brumberg over two other applicants, one of them a DEP employee, for the $65,000-a-year job.

    * * *

    Ballard said he saw no need to hire a parks expert to replace Mainella. He wanted one who could motivate employees.

    "I've got 1,100 experts in the state park system," he said. "I need one great manager."

    For her part, Spencer has been touring parks and meeting with employees to learn about Florida's park system, which draws 18-million visitors a year.

    "I am amazed," she said. "I've lived in Florida 10 years. I didn't realize, until I started studying it, just how diverse the parks are.'

    - Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report.

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