After two years overseeing the state’s environmental regulations, John Skvarla has a new challenge: leading the state Commerce Department as it navigates a new public-private partnership to recruit jobs.
Skvarla, who heads the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, will replace Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker. Gov. Pat McCrory announced her resignation Tuesday. She will depart Dec. 31 to lead a digital media company.
Skvarla will work closely with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which began under Decker and combines state funds and private contributions to oversee job recruitment and tourism. On Monday, that group hired Missouri economic developer Christopher Chung as its new CEO.
Decker was praised by McCrory for creating the partnership as he tearfully announced her departure. “She stepped on a lot of toes to make that happen, and the results are already starting to show,” McCrory said.
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Five companies, including Duke Energy, Red Hat and Lenovo, have contributed a total of $440,000 to help launch the partnership.
But some critics have warned that the new partnership could face ethical conflicts because its business donors could also seek state grants and other assistance. Skvarla said Tuesday that it will be “absolutely critical ... to make sure that we maintain the proper separation and the proper transparency.”
He compared the challenges involved to his work at DENR drafting coal ash regulations in the wake of a spill at Duke Energy’s coal ash pond on the Dan River in February.
“Kind of like the coal ash blueprint, nobody’s ever done this before,” he said. “We are breaking new ground here.”
But some argue that the partnership’s cozy relationship with business interests will cause problems regardless of who serves as commerce secretary.
“The problem isn’t who is heading the Department of Commerce, the problem is how we’re doing economic development in North Carolina,” said Allan Freyer of the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We have pay-to-play incentive granting.”
Rocky road at DENR
Skvarla’s tenure at DENR has been rocky. His appointment was met with skepticism by environmental advocates. They noted that he had expressed doubts about the science behind climate change and argued that under his leadership, DENR served the interests of the industry.
In 2013 – Skvarla’s first year – fines dropped to $518,000. They had previously totaled about $2 million a year from 2006 to 2008.
The department also cut positions when it merged its water quality staff into the Division of Water Resources during his tenure.
“It seemed too often that Secretary Skvarla viewed the customer as industries that were looking for weakened regulations,” said Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina.
But Lisa Martin of the N.C. Home Builders Association said developers often complained, before Skvarla’s time, that it was hard to get decisions from DENR.
Skvarla, she said, succeeded in reorganizing the department’s structure, mission and attitudes.
McCrory also praised Skvarla for DENR’s role in crafting energy policy, one of the governor’s top priorities. The department also helped shape coal legislation that put Duke on a 15-year timeline for closing its ash ponds.
But others saw the relationship between DENR and Duke as too friendly.
The U.S. Justice Department began a criminal probe of the agency in February, seeking records of its relationship with Duke Energy dating back to 2010 – two years before Skvarla took office.
And legislators pointedly put the new Coal Ash Management Commission in the Department of Public Safety.
“For better or for worse, his administration and his agency are going to be remembered for actions around the coal ash spill,” Rogers said.
For his part, Skvarla argues that he strengthened regulations of coal ash and well water quality.
“I contend that the hoopla about coal ash was as much political as it was real,” he said. “The reality is we are running this agency very well.”
McCrory said Skvarla has done a good job at DENR and thinks he’s the best possible pick for Commerce. “I’m very lucky to have John take on this very important job,” McCrory said.
Some environmentalists said the Commerce Department is a better fit for Skvarla’s pro-business approach. “My first reaction was I think he’d be much more comfortable there,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “I would say his heart has clearly been more with the economic development side.”
Skvarla, who will make $136,000 annually, said he’s looking forward to the new role, noting that jobs are “the only issue that 100 percent of our residents care about.” And he said his time at DENR will be “absolutely invaluable.”
“Going to Commerce, it’s just another adventure,” he said. “I have had the most marvelous rocket ride of opportunity.”
McCrory said he’s interviewing internal and external candidates for the DENR post and plans to appoint someone later this month. Environmental groups say they hope the governor will take a different direction with the new hire.
“One would hope that he would choose somebody who actually had regulatory experience,” Taylor said.
Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer contributed