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Great Lakes Article:

Bill could add environmental ombudsman
By Rachael Zylstra
The State News (MSU)
Published June 27, 2007

A bill to add an environmental ombudsman office within the state's legislative council was referred June 19 to the Michigan House of Representatives Great Lakes and Environmental Committee.

House Bill 4952 would create a regulatory office to oversee the actions of the state's Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ.

An ombudsman, the primary executive officer of the office, would be appointed to manage complaints citizens have with the DEQ.

"It sets up a process and an individual for the citizens in Michigan to go to if they believe the DEQ has overstepped its bounds or have found that state laws or policies have unfairly impacted individuals," said Phil Browne, chief of staff for Rep. Brian Palmer, R-Macomb, who is the primary sponsor of the bill.

"If you think something done by the DEQ was inappropriate, there is no one to turn to, and we want to give our citizens as much of a voice as possible involving these kind of activities," Browne said.

A version of the bill was introduced a couple of years ago, and complaints against the DEQ pressed the bill to be introduced again, Browne said. Wrongful citations and permit problems issued by the DEQ are two complaints citizens voice to the Michigan Legislature.

"We're not trying to give polluters a way out - we're trying to help with smaller issues and places for citizens to go," he said.

The DEQ's mission is to protect the environment and public health of Michigan, DEQ spokesman Bob McCann said.

"We do that by working with individuals around the state to make sure the practices done on a daily basis aren't damaging the environment," he said.

The idea of creating an environmental ombudsman for the state of Michigan isn't favored by DEQ officials.

"We're opposed to the bill solely because it would interfere with our job as environmental regulators," McCann said. "(An ombudsman) would basically disrupt processes designed to ensure we are protecting the environment."

The DEQ is battling budget issues, and the addition of an ombudsman would spread the budget even thinner, he said.

The bill states the ombudsman's office would be funded each year with $200,000 worth of civil fines collected by the DEQ.

"The DEQ is dedicated to protecting the environment, and it doesn't have the resources to do what it needs to do," said Terry Link, director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability.

The bill allows the ombudsman to draft a report and create recommendations of the filed complaints.

Sponsors of the bill hope the new office would make the DEQ more efficient by enabling the ombudsman to gain full subpoena powers and have legal access to all DEQ records.

"Representative Amos hopes the mere existence of the office will really serve to make the DEQ think twice about all of its decisions and be a little quicker to respond to things," said Gabe Basso, legislative director for Rep. Fran Amos, R-Oakland.

The placement and economics of the office may not be sensible, however.

"The idea isn't bad," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "Putting it inside the legislative council isn't the proper place to house an entity such as this. You wonder if it will just become a place where disgruntled legislators send hard cases to an ombudsman to handle the complaints."

Clift said while the idea of a regulatory ombudsman is good for the state, the way the office is funded should be thought out better, as the DEQ has taken severe budget cuts throughout the past five years.

The lack of funding results in fewer people working with the DEQ to issue permits and respond to complaints.

"Those are the type of services that, when you cut them, lead to unhappy residents," he said.

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