(Reprinted from the Spring 1997 issue of Everyone's Backyard. A publication of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice)
EPA Ombudsmen-Community Friends or Foes?
By Lois Marie Gibbs
Webster's Dictionary defines ombudsman as, "a government official who investigates citizens' complaints against the government or its functionaries."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated an Ombudsman Program to better communicate with community based groups concerned about environmental threats and public health. This program provides one national ombudsman and [ten] regional ombudsmen, one located in each of EPA's regional offices. EPA's intent, as we understand this program, was to provide local group leaders with a way to call an investigator, or ombudsman, when they don't receive responses to their inquiries or believe their concerns are not being taken seriously.
Some of the grassroots leaders in our network have had direct experience with these ombudsmen. The national ombudsman, Bob Martin, has been involved in Lock Raven, Pennsylvania; Pensacola, Florida; Tifton, Georgia; Times Beach, Missouri; and East Liverpool, Ohio. The majority of the grassroots leaders from these areas felt that Mr Martin listened to their concerns and was responsive to their requests. They appreciated his efforts, but were frustrated because Martin has little or no power to make or change decisions.
What about the other regional ombudsmen? CCHW hasn't heard much about them, and a memo we recently obtained gives us some clues as to why. This memo from EPA headquarters provides us with shocking insights of the people who have been assigned the responsibility of assisting communities through this program. EPA whistleblower William Sanjour attended the regional ombudsman training session this past June. He followed this meeting with a memo to former EPA Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response Elliott Laws, Laws' Deputy Tim Fields and National Ombudsman Bob Martin. expressing his concerns. He waited over six months for a response to his memo, and receiving none, decided to circulate his memo in the environmental community. The memo is summarized as follows:
"Six of the ombudsman can be divided into two categories of three. George Zachos (Region 2), Ron Wilson (Region 4) and Eddie Sierra (Region 6) all showed contempt and distaste for community activists. Wilson refers to the National Environmental Justice Commission [NEJC, pronounced knee-jack] as 'knee jerk'. He is contemptuous of Margaret Williams (community leader from Pensacola, Florida) and the fact that she can call Tim Fields or Elliott Laws any time she wants, and does so frequently. Eddie Sierra ridicules and mimics the speech and walk of activists in his region. He resents communities using political influence. George Zachos, while less outspoken than Sierra and Wilson, generally agrees with those two and deeply resents Lois Gibbs. He believes that in dealing with EPA, the regional ombudsman should be viewed as a team player. These three especially have the attitude that EPA is under attack by communitics, the media, politicians, etc., and they tend to have an 'us-against-them,' 'circle-the- wagons' mentality."
"The second category consists of John Smaldone (Region 1), John Armstead (Region 3), and Doug Ballotti (Region 5). These gentlemen do not believe it is appropriate for a regional ombudsman to question existing EPA processes or the conduct of EPA personnel. They are ambitious and are obviously very reluctant about being drafted for what could be a career breaking job."
"Of the remaining ombudsmen," Sanjour observed, "Michelle Pizadeh (Region 10), was the only person there who seemed to understand and sympathize with the community viewpoint. She would often contradict her fellow ombudsmen. Craig Smith (Region 7) did not say much, but from the little he did say, I would guess he shares the concerns of those in the second group, but nevertheless willing to take on the job. Rob Henke (Region 8) said so little, I could form no impression, and Sally Seymour (region 9) was not there."
It is outrageous that some of the very people assigned to investigate community concerns and complaints have contempt for community based organizations. It is immature and repulsive that some of these ombudsmen have no respect for the very people whom they are charged with assisting, to the extent that they openly mock their language, culture and actions. Mr. Sanjour referred to Eddie Sierra's mocking behavior as practicing to be a stand up comedian, while Mr. Sierra might have thought he was funny,.I'm sure the citizens in his region would not be amused. In addition, this was government funded training meeting. Taxpayer money is not meant to fund meetings where public employees show their ignorance and lack of sensitivity to the rich diversity of our society.
Their disrespect isn't limited to the community leaders. By referring to the NEJC as "knee jerk," these public employees showed grave disrespect for the President of the United States, who initiated the establishment of NEJC. This sort of egregious behavior is a direct slap in the face of his administration. Participants in this meeting, regardless of whether they were the ones to imitate community leaders or make a mockery of NEJC. should be held accountable for their actions. Only Mr Sanjour had the courage to speak out, and he should be recognized and applauded for this act.
National Ombudsman Bob Martin was held up as a model for the way in which ombudsman should behave. Martin does not get involved in situations unless he is asked to by a community leader. This practice was met with resistance from some participants at the meeting. with Ron Wilson (Region 4) saying that they [the ombudsmen] would inject themselves uninvited [into the community]. Why would an ombudsman get involved if there was no dispute or complaints? The purpose of this program is to investigate citizens complaints, not inject oneself into a situation as an outsider.
The memo also discussed the agreement by those at the meeting that the ombudsmen should not be a barrier to timely agency decision making. What if the citizens complaints have to do with the way those decisions we made? The ombudsmen's job is to settle disputes, and if that means a decision gets delayed, so be it. Lastly, the memo discussed how the regional offices want the ombudsmen to report to their regional administrator. in many cases the very person they are suppose to field complaints about. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the ombudsmen to do their jobs.
This memo concludes by stating that many of the ombudsmen want to conduct a public relations blitz advertising the regional ombudsman and all the wonderful things they are going to do for the public. Investing resources in an advertising blitz, rather than finding the right people for the program and getting it off to a good start, is throwing good money away. Communities faced with serious threats need people who respect their culture, views and needs, not someone who has contempt and distaste for the process. The program needs people who don't see the situations as us versus them. That mentality isn't new; discouraging it is exactly the reason why this program was initiated in the first place. If you find the situation described in Mr. Sanjour's memo intolerable, call your regional EPA offices and demand that action be taken. Call EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Assistant Administrator Tim Fields and demand that EPA get rid of these insensitive, rude public servants. We deserve ombudsmen who are sensitive to society's diversity and not afraid of working with communities.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner - (202) 260-4700.
EPA Acting Asst. Administrator Tim Fields - (202) 260-4610.
William Sanjour's home page