Commentary

These public servants think the public should stay out of their business

The Air Pollution Control Division, amid poor air quality, is hostile to accountability

September 23, 2021 8:07 am
smog

Smog hangs over Denver on the evening of Sept. 8, 2021, at an intersection in the Hilltop neighborhood north of Glendale. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado state agencies have a well-earned reputation for anti-transparent behavior. Throughout state government records are regularly destroyed, and the pandemic has exposed persistent disdain for transparency in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But an agency within the health department — the Air Pollution Control Division — has refined antipathy to open government to near-Soviet perfection. This is an agency populated by public servants whose salaries are paid with taxpayer money and who work on behalf of Coloradans. But top managers have determined that members of the public are pests. They have decided they are exempt from scrutiny. They think they can get away with an utter refusal to answer questions about what they’re doing with public resources. They’re happy to take a paycheck from us and perform tasks in our name but then tell us to scram if we watch them too closely.

At the agency in charge of controlling air pollution, the attitude toward the public is: “Nothing to see here.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Recent reporting by Newsline’s Chase Woodruff demonstrates what’s at stake. The Front Range this summer experienced some of its worst air pollution in more than a decade. Air quality alerts were issued many days in a row. Ground-level ozone levels routinely exceeded federal standards. This came against a backdrop of air pollution concerns related to oil and gas development, the reluctance of Gov. Jared Polis’ administration to forcefully pursue his own greenhouse gas emission limits, the cancellation of a once-priority traffic-reduction initiative, and the shocking accusation in a whistleblower complaint that the APCD had engaged in a pattern of illegal permitting of mines, oil and gas operations, asphalt plants and other industrial sources of air pollution.

In “Smokescreen,” a four-part investigation that Newsline published this week, Woodruff details how the agency responsible for regulating air pollution in Colorado is as opaque as the smoggiest Front Range sky.

“The division has declined or ignored more than a dozen separate Newsline interview requests since July,” Woodruff wrote. “Its director, Garry Kaufman, has participated only in rare interviews on select topics, and the division hasn’t held any press conferences or other media availabilities this year.”

Other forms of non-transparency: Senior officials at the division’s parent department, the Department of Public Health and Environment, declined multiple interview requests. Officials in the office of the division’s ultimate boss, Polis, declined multiple interview requests. Former health department staffers say public communication is corrupted by political influence and an institutional desire to avoid angering the entities they regulate, like industrial polluters. One ex-employee said the explicit purpose of an email auto-delete policy was “to get around” the Colorado Open Records Act. Woodruff filed expensive records requests under CORA with the governor’s office and the public health department, and what records were produced were statutorily untimely and heavily redacted. Andrew Bare, of the air pollution agency, made this astonishing remark to Woodruff: “I’m not authorized to talk to reporters on the record without going through a process.” Bare is the agency’s spokesperson.

It isn’t just Newsline. Other journalists have also found Colorado health officials to be similarly inaccessible, which in turn deprives the public of critical information.

“One big gripe I’ve got here is that the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment denied my request for an interview and avoided answering any questions directly,” The Denver Post’s Conrad Swanson tweeted in February. “In the end, those officials wouldn’t even give me a name to attribute to their non answers.”

This is not how open government is supposed to work.

State officials in a democracy are expected to be transparent in their activities and accountable to constituents. But leaders at the Air Pollution Control Division operate under the assumption that they can work in secret and stonewall the public. So far they’re doing it with impunity.

This is especially alarming given that the director, Kaufman, has prior financial ties to industries he now regulates — as the agency director he has signed off on pollution-limit exemptions for a gold mining company he previously represented as a private attorney, and as an environmental attorney at Holland & Hart he specialized in “the energy and mining industries regarding air quality permitting.” (In May I made the case that he should be sacked.)

It goes higher than Kaufman. Polis sets the tone for his administration, and the culture he appears to have established is that of contempt for accountability. “Nothing to see here,” officials in his government so often seem to say.

But as conditions worsen in Colorado’s smoggy skies, the public has increasing cause to shine a light on the work of air pollution regulators, and if they continue to shroud their decision-making in secrecy, they should be cleared from their positions along with toxins from the air.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.