DEQ gets bad marks from those who know

March 02, 2000

A new confidential survey of employees at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality indicates continued discontent over the way the agency handles its duties.

But that’s not too surprising, says DEQ spokesman Dan Rapkoch, especially considering that the agency has a broad scope of responsibilities and its decisions are almost always controversial. The survey, conducted by Montana Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (MTPEER), was sent to 347 agency workers in January. So far, 103 questionnaires have been returned, representing a 30 percent response rate, according to assistant director Nicole Cromwell.

MTPEER is a branch of a national organization of current and former government agency employees. One of the group’s goals is to promote and protect whistleblowers who expose workplace inequities, especially those that deal with environmental issues.

The group first conducted a survey of DEQ employees in 1996. Results then showed that a majority of 115 respondents thought morale was lousy, that administrators too often sided with industry, and that the department was poorly managed. While perceptions of low morale decreased in the new survey, more than two-thirds of this year’s respondents say they think the agency has insufficient resources to do its mandated job, and 57 percent say that official reaction to environmental violations is “uneven and variable,” and less than what they deem appropriate. Fewer than a third say they think DEQ is well-managed, and more than half say a department reorganization undertaken five years ago has not improved environmental protection.

“The people who know best are fearing the worst,” Cromwell says. “They see politics and poor leadership hampering their abilities to do their jobs.” But Rapkoch, pointing to the relatively low survey return rate, says people with axes to grind are much more likely to respond to a MTPEER survey than those who are satisfied with their jobs and work environment.

Survey respondents also issued a strong response to a survey question about staff attrition at the agency. More than 70 percent say DEQ has been hurt by high turnover. Rapkoch, however, points out that the agency’s turnover rate, approximately 10 percent a year, is about the same as other state agencies in Montana.

Perhaps more revealing, though, is a survey question dealing with overall DEQ management. Sixty-four percent of respondents believe the department is not well-managed.

“Everyone here is pretty well welcomed to voice their own opinions,” Rapkoch says in response. “I think folks [at DEQ] do a professional job and try to maintain a professional atmosphere.”

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