Court Halts Cooper’s Cabinet Confirmations

RALEIGH — The Senate’s recently announced confirmation schedule for cabinet appointees is on hold, pending further action in a lawsuit brought by Gov. Roy Cooper that challenges the constitutionality of legislation limiting the governor’s power that the North Carolina General Assembly passed during a special session in late December.

Gov. Roy Cooper introduces on Jan. 3 Michael Regan, his pick to lead the Department of Environmental Quality. Photo: Kirk Ross

In a conference call Tuesday evening, a three-judge panel heard arguments in the case and on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order blocking the confirmation process.

The court is expected to hold its first full hearing on the case Friday in Wake Superior Court.

The Senate’s Special Committee on Nominations, which is overseeing the confirmation process, announced a schedule for confirmation hearings last week.

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, the committee chairman, said after the announcement that he does not see the confirmation process as confrontational. Rabon said he expected Cooper’s nominees would be confirmed, barring any conflicts of interest. He did not expect to the process to be about ideology, he said.

“We’re not going to prejudge anyone,” Rabon said last week. “I would assume the governor has appointed pretty bright people.”

Sen. Bill Rabon

The hearings, which are scheduled to be held in the Senate policy committees associated with each cabinet post, were set to begin Wednesday morning, just prior to the release of the restraining order.

The tentative schedule Rabon released last week spreads out the confirmation hearings over six weeks. They include hearings by the Senate’s Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Susi Hamilton’s appointment as secretary of Cultural and Natural Resources on Feb. 16 and Michael Regan’s appointment as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality on March 8.

The temporary restraining order states that, should the confirmation process be found constitutional, hearings could proceed at any time.

DEQ Reorganizes

While the confirmation questions swirled, incoming Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan moved forward with a major reorganization at the top levels of the department Tuesday.

John Nicholson

Regan named retired Marine Corps Col. John Nicholson, who was military affairs adviser to Gov. Bev Perdue, as DEQ chief deputy secretary and Sheila Holman as assistant secretary for the environment.

Holman led DEQ’s Division of Air Quality for six years and will be replaced in that role by acting director Mike Abraczinskas.

Regan also appointed attorney Bill Lane as general counsel, Andy Miller as DEQ’s legislative affairs director and Jamie Kritzer, who has worked in public affairs for the department since 2003, as acting deputy secretary for public affairs.

Sheila Holman

The new group replaces former Chief Deputy Secretary John Evans, Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder, General Counsel Sam Hayes, Legislative Affairs Director Mollie Young, and Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Stephanie Hawco, who all served under the McCrory administration.

Evans and former DEQ secretary Donald van der Vaart demoted themselves to positions outside those that can be hired and fired by the governor.

Evans moved to the DEQ human resources office. Van der Vaart, a former member of the Division of Air Quality staff, moved back to the division in late December.

Reeder, who coordinated the department’s response to coal ash pollution, opted to retire.

Chamber Debut

Regan and a handful of DEQ administrators, including Holman, previewed their approach to their new roles last week during a daylong discussion of environmental policies at an event sponsored by the North Carolina Chamber.

Regan said his work in with the Environmental Protection Agency and later with the Environmental Defense Fund had given him experience in both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to environmental protection.

“I learned that, in the end, everyone wants a level of certainty, to be heard and to participate in a fair process,” he said.

Regan stressed the need for regulatory certainty and a more transparent and open stakeholder process.

“One theme I’ve heard over and over and over again is that many of our stakeholders — the business community, the environmental community, the legislature and even folks within our own agency — have felt like they do not have an opportunity to get their voice heard on issues affecting our environment and the economy,” Regan said. “I’m here to tell you folks, that’s just not acceptable. We cannot find the best solutions if we’re not engaging.”

Regan said the top priorities for the department are to continue to focus on coal ash cleanup and review of site-closure plans and to work through a backlog of permits that has built up during the past few years.

In his remarks, Jay Zimmerman, director of DEQ’s Division of Water Resources, said surface water-related permits are among the biggest categories in the backlog.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve started to develop a backlog that’s creeping up in response to challenges we’ve had as an agency,” he said.

Division staff had been pulled away from permitting to work on other projects, he said, and the division had personnel retention issues as well.

Zimmerman said the division is working to whittle down the backlog and develop proposals for agency changes that might help.

Craig Bromby, deputy general counsel for DEQ, said one draw on resources is the ongoing, detailed, line-by-line review of all water quality rules. The process is part of a comprehensive study of all state rules, a review mandated by the legislature in 2013.

“It has been a slow go,” Bromby said, adding that said some of the key water quality rule rewrites are being readied for public comment.

Holman, speaking at the chamber event, said the Division of Air Quality was also heavily involved in the  review, which requires re-adoption of all 320 air quality rules by the end of 2020.

“While that sounds like a long time,” Holman said, “in the rule-making world it is the blink of an eye.”

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About the Author

Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist in Chapel Hill. In addition to Coastal Review Online, he covers the legislature and state government for Carolina Public Press. He can be reached at kmr@rossalmanac.com