Cru­cial area posts re­main va­cant

Open­ings range from the EPA to crim­i­nal jus­tice

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Jesse Paul and Mark K. Matthews

Eight months into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, a slate of top federal jobs in Colorado and the West re­mains un­filled — a hir­ing de­lay that touches ev­ery­thing from the en­vi­ron­ment to crim­i­nal jus­tice and one which lo­cal lead­ers and ac­tivists said ham­pers their abil­ity to work with the White House.

Full-time ad­min­is­tra­tors have yet to be in­stalled in the Colorado re­gional of­fices of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, Federal Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment and De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, among oth­ers.

The state also has an act­ing U.S. at­tor­ney and a va­cant seat on the federal bench. A ju­rist nom­i­nated in June to re­place U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Neil Gor­such on the 10th U.S. District Court of Ap­peals only re­cently was given the green light to ap­pear be­fore a U.S. Se­nate panel for vet­ting.

The slow pace hasn’t gone un­no­ticed by either Democrats or Repub­li­cans, though the two sides of­ten dis­agree on its pri­mary cause — the White House or Congress.

Re­search by CNN and the Part­ner­ship for Pub­lic Ser­vice, a non-

par­ti­san good-gov­ern­ment group, in­di­cates that Trump has fallen far be­hind pre­de­ces­sors Barack Obama and Ge­orge W. Bush in nom­i­nat­ing federal of­fi­cials and get­ting them con­firmed.

“We cer­tainly have no­ticed it, but our hope is that they are go­ing to fill those slots quickly and we’re be­gin­ning to see some mo­tion there,” said Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper, who added that the big­gest im­pact was on gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“When you have things that need (an) ex­pla­na­tion or a de­ci­sion … some­times you have to wait,” said Hick­en­looper, a Democrat. “If you don’t have the people on the ground, it’s of­ten hard to get that in­for­ma­tion or those de­ci­sions as quickly as some­times you’d like.”

Asked about their progress, White House of­fi­cials couldn’t put an ex­act fig­ure on the num­ber of open federal jobs in Colorado or what the gov­ern­ment calls Re­gion 8, which in­cludes Colorado and sev­eral nearby states. One mem­ber of a com­mit­tee tasked with vet­ting lo­cal can­di­dates said the panel had for­warded dozens of names to the ad­min­is­tra­tion since Jan­uary.

“We’ve tried to weigh in on the key po­si­tions that either can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Re­gion 8 or the key po­si­tions where we were able to iden­tify some­body we thought could re­ally make a dif­fer­ence,” said Robert Blaha, who chaired Trump’s Colorado cam­paign and is part of that vet­ting panel.

He blamed the hir­ing de­lay on sev­eral fac­tors, from the slow pace of the Se­nate to the time needed to con­duct in-depth back­ground checks.

“I’d be a liar if I said the en­tire process isn’t a bot­tle­neck,” Blaha said.

As for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s own re­spon­si­bil­ity, Blaha sug­gested it could do more.

“I don’t know ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on inside the White House, but I will tell you that I think it’s time to pick up the pace,” he said. “Any­thing the White House can do to en­cour­age leg­is­la­tion … to ac­cel­er­ate it, that’s a pos­si­bil­ity. To look at tem­po­rary as­sign­ments, that’s a pos­si­bil­ity.”

Also some­thing to con­sider, Blaha added: Trump may not want to fill ev­ery po­si­tion, in an ef­fort to re­duce the size of gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to a cen­sus of federal work­ers pub­lished after the elec­tion, there are about 9,000 federal jobs in which Trump could in­stall his own people, al­though more than half of those po­si­tions don’t of­ten change when a new pres­i­dent takes of­fice, putting the fig­ure closer to 4,000.

But the turnover does have an im­pact, even if the ba­sic func­tion of gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues.

“With­out per­ma­nent lead­er­ship in place, th­ese re­gional of­fices lack clear di­rec­tion, are un­able to de­velop new part­ner­ships and can be forced to de­lay things like pro­cess­ing per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions, grant re­quests and more,” U.S. Rep. Ed Perl­mut­ter, D-ar­vada, said in a state­ment.

One no­table va­cancy is the Den­ver-based EPA spot for Re­gion 8, which cov­ers Colorado, Mon­tana, the Dako­tas, Utah, Wy­oming and 27 Tribal Na­tions.

For­mer Re­gional Ad­min­is­tra­tor Shaun Mcgrath, who over­saw the Gold King Mine spill re­sponse, left in Jan­uary. Since then, Deb Thomas has been fill­ing his job in the in­terim. Sev­eral names re­cently were floated for the job, in­clud­ing Patrick Davis, who served as Colorado state di­rec­tor dur­ing Trump’s 2016 cam­paign, and Doug Ben­evento, re­cently a Dou­glas County School Board mem­ber.

Joni Teter, who re­tired three years ago after 25 years at the EPA, said an of­fice can do rou­tine work with­out a full-time leader but can’t move for­ward on big­ger items.

“But when we get to the point where there are de­ci­sions to be made, whether that is de­ci­sions about a phase at a par­tic­u­lar Su­per­fund site or a per­mit or an en­force­ment ac­tion, that doesn’t hap­pen with­out an ap­pointed per­son,” said Teter, who pi­o­neered Save EPA in re­sponse to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies.

The oil and gas in­dus­try isn’t happy either – though for a dif­fer­ent rea­son.

“What we are see­ing is that Re­gion 8 is act­ing like the elec­tion never took place,” Kath­leen Sgamma, pres­i­dent of the West­who ern En­ergy Al­liance, said about the lo­cal EPA of­fice.

She didn’t cite specifics in Colorado — other than an is­sue deal­ing with air reg­u­la­tions — but Sgamma said she sees the “need for adult su­per­vi­sion in Re­gion 8.”

The De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment de­clined to com­ment about its search for a new re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor. But ad­vo­cates for the home­less said fill­ing the job is es­sen­tial.

“That role serves as the li­ai­son for us and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and in th­ese in­cred­i­bly un­cer­tain times, we need to have a lo­cal con­tact that can pro­vide pol­icy and pro­gram guid­ance,” said Cathy Al­der­man of the Colorado Coali­tion for the Home­less. “It would be much more com­fort­ing to know that there was a leader on the ground that would be avail­able to help us nav­i­gate and plan for any po­ten­tial bud­get cuts.”

Sim­i­lar con­cerns sur­round the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Colorado, which has been spear­headed by act­ing top federal pros­e­cu­tor Bob Troyer for about 13 months. That time pe­riod isn’t nec­es­sar­ily un­usual, of­fi­cials say, though it still can put the state at a dis­ad­van­tage.

“The work of the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice is car­ried out by ded­i­cated ca­reer staff whose ef­forts con­tinue full-force, even in the ab­sence of a pres­i­den­tially ap­pointed U.S. at­tor­ney,” said John Walsh, who held the role un­til leav­ing in July 2016.

“But a pres­i­den­tial ap­pointee’s voice car­ries added weight in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to make sure the of­fice and its people get the bud­get, staffing and mis­sion sup­port they need to pro­tect the pub­lic here in Colorado,” Walsh added.

Also in the jus­tice realm, Colorado lacks a U.S. mar­shal to lead the agency that han­dles law en­force­ment for federal courts.

Records show Judge Robert Black­burn has yet to be re­placed since tak­ing se­nior sta­tus on Colorado’s U.S. District Court bench — which has a crowded caseload — and there is no nom­i­nee to re­place him.

Colorado Supreme Court Jus­tice Al­li­son Eid was tapped in June to re­place Gor­such. Her nom­i­na­tion hear­ing was just set for Sept. 20.

An­other agency lack­ing a full­time re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor for Colorado and the re­gion is FEMA. But so far, com­ing off a mild wild­fire sea­son in the state, no ma­jor prob­lems have been re­ported.

Dar­ren Cold­well, county ad­min­is­tra­tor in Lin­coln County, Mont., praised the agency for its re­sponse to the fires burn­ing tens of thou­sands of acres in the area he over­sees. More than a dozen struc­tures — in­clud­ing homes — have burned there, and FEMA has been quick to re­spond.

“We did just get ap­proved here in the last cou­ple of days for FEMA as­sis­tance,” he said Mon­day. “They have been very re­spon­sive. I don’t know if not hav­ing that per­son in there made a dif­fer­ence.”

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