Staff changes at IDEM reflect long-term shifts

Upon taking office as governor, Mitch Daniels made it clear that one of his first priorities would be sweeping change at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. He put this into action in the first few days of his administration, when several upper-level staff members were asked for their resignations, and did so; one, Jim Mahern, refused and was terminated. Prior to that, IDEM commissioner Lori Kaplan, like all other state agency heads, had resigned, bringing the total of ex-staffers to seven. All were out of their offices by the afternoon.

Thomas Easterly was appointed the new commissioner of IDEM, replacing Kaplan, and he said that the resignations were a sign of the changes to come at IDEM.

"We're trying to make a change, and they were the management of the agency, and they, like me, were political appointees," Easterly said. "And in order to demonstrate the change in direction, we wanted to remove the members of the former administration so as not to confuse the issue."

Easterly said that IDEM's policy will be one of clear, consistent and predictable standards.

"If people come in with the same set of facts, they will receive the same set of answers. Predictability is a big deal with us," Easterly said. "One thing that affects business is not knowing the outcome of a situation and how long it's going to take."

When Daniels addressed the members of IDEM on the second day of his administration, he said that the agency's top priority should be creating new jobs in Indiana.

"It's really a vision for the entire government," Easterly said. "Our goal is to increase the personal income of all Hoosiers, which is now about 88 cents on the dollar, and try to get above the national average."

According to Easterly, examples of how this will improve the environment will include individuals buying newer, more environmentally friendly cars and corporations using newer, more efficient production facilities.

Easterly said IDEM will be continuing the process started under Kaplan of converting permit and report filing processes to an electronic, online format.

Kaplan noted that permit times were already being speeded up; last year they reduced times by 30 percent, and renewal times by 50 percent. In her six years at IDEM, she said, they were only late once, and only by a day, in issuing permits according to deadlines set by the legislature.

However, Easterly said that he does not believe this rate to be good enough.

"During the campaign (Daniels) heard a lot about IDEM, and not from its supporters obviously," Easterly said. "And in the competition around the country for getting good businesses, our permitting process was seen, fairly or unfairly, as an impediment to attracting business."

According to a current IDEM employee who asked to remain anonymous, the changes have been hard on the staff's morale.

"Being around the thirteenth floor is being in the dog pound after all the dogs have been put to sleep," the employee said. "There's all these empty offices, there's no sense of what's going to happen with these positions. There's an oppressiveness that's hard to describe. It kind of feels like we're stalled out, because a lot of our leadership is gone and we don't know who's coming in to replace it. And I know it's hard on those who have stepped into the vacuum positions, and it's really hard on them, having to do their own jobs and manage people on top of that."

Though Kaplan said the administration has the prerogative to assemble their own team of managers, she said that it was unfortunate that so many collective years of experience were lost at once.

"It's a loss to the agency and the state," Kaplan said. "Those were top level managers who kept the trains running on time. I would be concerned to be there without those folks."