When a local, state or federal environmental regulatory agency crosses the line from being an impartial enforcer of laws and regulations to becoming an environmental advocate, both the rule of law and private property rights are in jeopardy. Unfortunately, this happens all too frequently. Many government employees working in environmental agencies often feel they have the right or even responsibility of a higher calling in protecting the environment, even if means adding to or interpreting the law to suit their ends.
While director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, I made it a habit to address all new employees each year. I stressed that their job was like that of an umpire: to treat regulated parties fairly and to enforce the law as written. I added that their job was not to be an environmental advocate, and if that is what they wanted to do, they were working in the wrong place and should seek employment with an environmental advocate organization. I am sure many of the employees ignored my advice, understanding that directors come and go and they would remain with civil service protection.
It is common for governors to believe if they just appoint the “right” people the problems with a renegade regulatory agency will go away. Unfortunately, that is just wishful thinking. It would be a serious miscalculation for a reform-minded governor like Rick Snyder to underestimate the power of an entrenched agency like the DEQ to resist change. The good news is the Michigan Legislature has passed several bills that limit the ability of DEQ employees to interpret and administer environmental laws that enable them to pursue their own agenda rather than follow the direction of lawmakers. Gov. Snyder should sign those bills as soon as they reach his desk.