Well-connected McCrory appointee’s qualifications questioned

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

Another high-ranking political appointee in the McCrory administration is facing questions about whether he is qualified to hold his post.

Bryan Gossage leads water and land conservation efforts at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as director of the newly created Office of Land and Water Stewardship at an annual salary of $78,000.

In this capacity, he manages the Clean Water Management Trust Fund – a position that is required by state law to have “training and experience in conservation, protection and management of surface water resources.”

But Gossage’s resume doesn’t include any direct experience in the environmental conservation or management field – a point environmental advocates and a Democratic lawmaker say disqualifies him to what they consider a key position.

The 38-year-old Apex resident worked for more than a decade managing a small media company before joining Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration in May. His wife, Chloe Gossage, is the governor’s policy director and makes $110,000 a year.

He made $117,000 as deputy secretary for innovation support in the state’s commerce department but his position was being eliminated as part of an agency reorganization. Gossage started his new job Nov. 5.

Drew Elliott, a DENR spokesman, said that Bryan Gossage is qualified for his director job because he served on the Apex Town Council from 2003-2011, serving his final term as mayor pro tem, and “provided oversight of town water management and conservation efforts” during a prolonged drought in 2007.

“His qualifications are an extensive background in both state and local government and a background in small business,” Elliott said. “He also has an interest in and experience in conservation and water conservation matters as his eight years on the Apex Town Council show.”

At the time, Apex instituted restrictions that limited residents to three days of watering a week on an alternating schedule, a standard response also implemented by other towns. The town’s municipal water system is managed by neighboring Cary as part of a joint agreement.

“I think it’s a stretch compared to the professionals that he’s replacing,” said Cassie Gavin at the Sierra Club in Raleigh. “It’s a big job and there’s nothing more important than clean water in the state.”

Latest dispute over qualifications

Democratic state Rep. Verla Insko said Wednesday that Gossage’s appointment is part of a broader problem in the McCrory administration. Earlier this year, McCrory gave two 24-year-old campaign workers top level jobs in the state Department of Health and Human Services that paid $85,000 and $87,500.

A McCrory donor who helped organize an eastern North Carolina tea party group also received an unposted senior planning job in the same agency. The administration said all three were qualified.

“There is a pattern across state government of appointing people who are contributors and people who worked in the campaign,” said Insko, who serves on the House Environment Committee. “But there are only so many slots for people, so they don’t always get put into slots where they have experience.”

A McCrory spokesman declined to comment on Gossage’s appointment. Gossage could not be reached for comment.

In his appointment, Insko and environmental groups also see signals about how seriously the McCrory administration takes water and land conservation projects. In his proposed budget, the Republican governor gave the Clean Water Management Trust Fund a one-time $6.5 million appropriation in the 2013 fiscal year with no future money.

The Republican-led state legislature directed more money in the final budget, giving about $24 million over two years to issue grants to local governments and conservation organizations that conduct cleanup and preservation projects. Until recently, the clean water fund had a budget of $100 million.

The lawmakers also consolidated the once-independent Clean Water Management fund with a repurposed Natural Heritage Trust Fund, which issues land preservation grants. The McCrory administration further reorganized the department that oversees the funds and renamed it. Gossage reports to Cecelia Holden, a special assistant to DENR Secretary John Skvarla.

Top fund director retiring

On Wednesday, DENR confirmed that Beth McGee recently announced she will retire this year from her post as the deputy director of the clean water fund, where she worked under Gossage. Holden said McGee made a personal decision that didn’t related to the reorganization. She had 28 years experience.

Gossage’s predecessor, Richard Rogers, was let go in August after five years leading the fund. Prior to taking the post, he had served 13 years in DENR, including a stint as assistant secretary.

Beyond his wife’s connection to the governor’s office, state Rep. Tom Murry sent an email recommending Gossage for his first administration job to Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker, the lawmaker acknowledged Wednesday. Murry, a Republican whose former legislative assistant is McCrory’s sister, is chairman of the House commerce committee.

Gossage, a Republican, lost a 2008 bid for the House seat Murry later won in 2010. The two are friends and Murry donated money and helped Gossage campaign for Apex Mayor in 2011, a race he lost by a wide margin.

Murry’s wife is also listed as a health and wellness writer for the network of online news websites Gossage managed as publisher and editor. The websites, such as the Wake County Times, frequently featured stories naming Tom Murry in a favorable light. The news websites have not been updated since May, when Gossage took his first government post.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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