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Ben Grumbles, the new head of the Maryland Department of the Environment. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

New Md. environmental chief: Enforcement not ‘first step’

The new head of the Maryland Department of the Environment is promising better relations with businesses in the state but said environmental groups need not be worried he will be a rubber stamp.

Ben Grumbles, Gov. Larry Hogan’s choice to lead the environmental agency, said his challenge will be to “accelerate the pace of environmental progress in Maryland,” including improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay, even as he attempts to improve the perception that his agency contributes significantly to what is seen as an unfriendly business climate in the state.

“The customer isn’t always right, the customer service is always right,” Grumbles said. “An environmental regulatory agency has to say ‘no’ at times. The key to customer service is to communicate clearly and effectively early on and to try to be a problem solver. If you’re going to say ‘no,’ try to say why and also explain what might change that ‘no’ to a ‘maybe’ or to a ‘yes.'”

Grumbles, an attorney who previously led the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and was an assistant administrator for water with the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, takes over an agency that was singled out by some business leaders as being less than friendly.

The trick will be to balance the competing pressures of  Hogan, who wants better customer service and more business-friendly climate, and the General Assembly, which wants to protect the environment — especially the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

But the term customer service and ensuring that the state is, in the words of Hogan, “open for business,” can give some environmentalists dyspepsia.

“I think the phrase can cause concern in some environmental circles sometimes because they think that means a regulatory agency is always trying to say yes or rubber-stamp something,” Grumbles said, who added the best practice is to give everyone the information they need to understand the regulatory process and set up a system that prevents businesses from running “a disjointed, sequential regulatory environment.”

The agency came under fire last summer during a series of hearings held across the state by the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission, which came to be known as the Augustine Commission after its chairman, Norman Augustine.

The commission reported that complaints ranged from difficulties in dealing directly with the agency, including “frustrating, confrontational, inconsistent, time-consuming, arbitrary, and generally unhelpful” interactions; refusals to grant “common sense” exemptions; delays in decisions; refusals to explain decisions; and excessive uses of penalties and other legal actions.

Hogan has called for greater customer service efforts from state agencies. The legislature approved five recommendations of the Augustine Commission, including passage of a bill that requires additional customer service training. Hogan signed all of them into law.

Grumbles said he plans to add an enhanced website that provides information to businesses, environmental groups and the public as well as an ombudsman who he said will help businesses navigate sometimes complex regulatory processes.

“There needs to be some coordinated effort upfront to help identify potential issues and get out ahead and early on those,” Grumbles said.

Enforcement will still be part of the equation, but Grumbles said it shouldn’t be the first option.

“Enforcement is not a necessary evil,” Grumbles said. “It’s a necessary backstop.”

The first goal should be to provide compliance assistance, he said.

“That can be technical assistance,” Grumbles said. “It might be financial assistance but it’s “help them comply. Then you move into the enforcement realm. It’s not the first step. The first step is not to go straight into enforcement.”