A secretive search for Georgia's next enviro chief

Green board members shut out of process

If you're not surprised at Harold Reheis' new job, you won't be surprised by the slanted process the state Natural Resources Board has set up to search for his successor.

Reheis, director until last month of the state Environmental Protection Division, announced Aug. 1 that he's going to start lobbying in September for a firm that represents the very industries he once regulated. In other words, polluters.

For years, environmental groups criticized Reheis for favoring big business over the environment. It seems the tidy relationships he built with the industry have paid off with a plumb position in the private sector.

But don't expect the state's pro-polluter tilt to stop any time soon. The Natural Resource Board members charged with searching for Reheis' replacement aren't exactly the type you'd see in the dictionary next to the word "environmentalist."

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the search committee, is a former developer. Now, he's president of Wheeler/Kolb Management Co., which manages shopping centers and malls. Bob Rutland is the chairman of Allied Holdings, the largest automobile-hauling company in North America. The other two members are former state Sen. Loyce Turner, a Valdosta banker and veterinarian, and Walter McNeely, a retired school superintendent.

"I do not believe that the four members of the search committee fully represent the views on the DNR board," complains Sally Bethea, one of three board members who generally vote in favor of the environment.

Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and other board members who want a more aggressive EPD chief have been shut out of the selection process. The search committee isn't sharing the names of the 15 people who have applied for the job with other board members, and the committee alone will interview the candidates and choose the finalists.

"I have no way of knowing whether we're going to get the right caliber of person," Bethea says. "I have never been on the board of any private organization that functions in such a secret manner in terms of selecting one of the most critical positions in that organization. And this, the Department of Natural Resources, is a public agency and should be even more public."

The search committee's approach may even be illegal. According to Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state Law Department, board members are legally entitled to all the information that a search committee has gathered. The rules are different for the public, which gets to see the applicants' name once the list is whittled down to three finalists.

Wheeler says he doesn't want to share the names of the applicants because "most of these candidates have asked us to keep their names confidential. We're honoring their request for confidentiality, and that has upset two of our board members."

Bethea, apparently one of those upset board members, counters that everyone on the board knows the applicants' names are to be kept secret. "There's no way any of us would jeopardize an applicant's job security," she says. "I just want to know if this search committee has actively sought the kind of person that we've recommended."

Bethea will find out Aug. 20 during a closed-door update to the board by the committee. The committee may even provide a ranked list of favored applicants. But, by then, it could be too late for other board members to have any say.

Bethea worries that the state is missing an opportunity to train EPD more tightly on its mission. "Past EPD directors focused much too much on piecemeal permitting without looking at the cumulative results of the permitting," she says. "So, I'm hopeful that the person selected ... will be someone from outside the agency who can exhibit some real leadership in looking at the big picture."

Only one man could push the board to take a more open and inclusive hiring approach. Gov. Sonny Perdue holds significant leverage over the board: He appoints its members and has final say over the agency's budget. And state law requires that the full board and governor approve the EPD director. The governor also has the authority to fire the director.

Perdue showed some interest in the board this spring — but not of the variety environmentalists wanted: He booted one enviro-friendly member — former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard — and tried to boot another, attorney Jim Butler.