Sustained Outrage

So much for Chemical Safety Board transparency

When last we left the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, President Obama had pushed out chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, and some other board members were making a lot of noise about the need for more transparency at the agency.

Fast forward to more recent events, and here’s what Government Executive reports has happened:

The Chemical Safety Board, still struggling with vacancies as it seeks stability following the forced resignation of its chairman in March, divided sharply last Thursday over an unusual procedural move that empowered the interim chairman.

Engler_RichardLRBoard member Rick Engler, Government Executive has learned, on Friday sent the staff a note, saying the board had voted to designate him the “Board Member Delegated Interim Executive and Administrative Authority in accordance with CSB Board Order 003,” and that he looked forward to “working collegially with my fellow board members and staff.”

… But critics, some from labor unions, say Engler’s special board vote to make himself acting chairman violated transparency rules and accords him too much power at a time when all await Senate confirmation of President Obama’s nomination for permanent CSB chairwoman, Vanessa Sutherland. Board member Mark Griffon’s five-year term also expires June 24.

Only two board members participated in Thursday’s vote, and it came in spite of an attempt by board member Manny Ehrlich to postpone it. Ehrlich, whose back ailment prevented his presence at the vote for acting chairman, on June 8 had sent the CSB associate general counsel a proposal for an interim sharing of power between him and Engler, saying the situation was unprecedented.

Ehrlich’s proposal attempted to “calendar” the vote, or delay it for a future public meeting. But sources familiar with the proceedings, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said board members Engler and Griffon, lacking a three-person quorum, conducted an “urgent” vote by email, and, rather than waiting for the required five days, ran it only briefly by the general counsel’s office before announcing results to staff.

The vote also removed a 180-day expiration date that was part of Board Order 003, meaning Engler’s appointment as acting chair now goes “in perpetuity” if the two remaining board members deadlock on any vote.

In its story, Greenwire used the headline, “CSB’s Engler gains executive authority with private vote” (subscription required):

Chemical Safety Board member Rick Engler has been granted new executive authority with a written vote conducted in private last week.

Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and other critics contend the move was inappropriate and shouldn’t have taken place before Vanessa Sutherland, the chief counsel of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is confirmed to lead the CSB.

The agency has not made any official announcement of the board action, and CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said she had to talk with board members before providing more information about the action.

Engler wrote in a brief email to CSB staff members Friday that on Thursday, “the Board voted to designate me the Board Member Delegated Interim Executive and Administrative Authority in accordance with CSB Board Order 003.” Engler added he was “honored to serve in this role and I look forward to working collegially with my fellow Board Members and Staff.”

Keep in mind that the board has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow and just last week held a very lengthy public meeting, with an agenda item that called for:

Board Deliberation and Possible Vote on Governance without a Chair

As Greenwire explained, in a bit of an understatement:

Engler, for one, described CSB’s transparency last week as a work in progress.

“We’re still feeling our way at what types of things should be debated openly in public,” Engler said at the meeting.