David Mears, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, announced his plans to leave state government Thursday. Mears said he plans to return to Vermont Law School, where he will teach environmental law.
“There was an opportunity to go back and teach at Vermont Law School and those opportunities don’t come along that often and I really enjoyed the chance I’d had previously to work with students, so the chance to do that was highly appealing to me,” Mears said in an interview.
Mears said Gov. Peter Shumlin’s announcement last month that he will not run for reelection was “a factor in the back of my mind” as he made the decision, but said the decision was mostly based on his desire to be part of Vermont Law School’s nationally recognized environmental program.
The commissioner’s last day on the job is August 7, right around the time the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue its final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) pollution reduction targets for Lake Champlain. He said his departure has nothing to do with the rollout of new pollution control measures linked to the TMDL and the new water quality bill signed into law this year.
“If anything, I’m a little sad not to be able to be part of that rollout in the same way that I’ve been for the last several years. It’s just an amazing team of folks at the department,” he said.
Mears said those efforts have their challenges, but the biggest one will be maintaining the level of interest in water quality issues across the state that helped get the new law passed.
“There is a degree to which we’ve been successful so far because we’ve been able to keep everyone at the table,” he said, including farmers, municipalities, developers, watershed groups and multiple state agencies. “That’s just a logistical challenge and a challenge of communications, but Alyssa Schuren who is going to take over for me has demonstrated to me over the last several years that we've worked together that she's highly effective at building partnerships and working collaboratively with folks.”
Mears said one of the things he’s most proud of from his time at DEC was putting into place changes that make the department work smoothly.
“We had over time in our department – over the years, really decades – not invested enough time and energy in the basic systems that are needed to make any organization function. The basic systems about how you manage information technology, you manage your paperwork and files, the systems and processes by which you make decisions. All of those things had been allowed through neglect or just not enough attention over time, to kind of fall into a state of disrepair.”
Mears said: “the payoff has been that there’s been a growing culture within the department of staff feeling empowered to step in and solve these kinds of problems, and the net benefit is that we’re able to produce better results for the broader public.”
Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, Mears’ boss, said she’ll miss Mears in the department but said she’s confident her agency’s work won’t suffer.
“David has a tremendous team himself,” she said, “and there's folks who've been working on clean water their entire careers who did the foundational work for the plan, and they're still there. They're not going away.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin announced some other staffing changes Thursday. Jon Copans will move from his job as a policy advisor in the Agency of Natural Resources to become deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service on August 17. Shumlin’s deputy chief of staff and director of intergovernmental affairs, Alyson Richards, is leaving the governor’s office July 24. Joe Flynn, the director of emergency management for the state, will become the deputy commissioner of public safety after the current deputy, Francis “Paco” Aumand, retires July 24.