From: Scott Barker, The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Published February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Environmental Officials Defend Rules on Construction

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials said Monday concerns about businesses wielding improper influence in the agency are unfounded.


Environmental groups and some TDEC employees have questioned the influence of contractors and a legislator in possible disciplinary action against Francis Baker, a water quality regulator in the Cookeville field office.


Paul Davis, director of TDEC's Water Pollution Control Division, would not address possible disciplinary action against Baker, but in a telephone interview said the agency wouldn't bend the rules for regulated businesses.


"We're not going to compromise the enforcement of the rules," Davis said. "It's an important job."


A 27-year TDEC employee, Baker issues storm water discharge permits to construction companies and citations to violators.


State Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, arranged for a Jan. 21 meeting between TDEC officials and disgruntled contractors to discuss Baker's on-the-job conduct.


The contractors complained to TDEC about Baker's behavior at job sites and his interpretation of construction storm water rules. Some of the contractors have been cited by Baker and have paid thousands of dollars in fines.


In a Feb. 1 letter to Baker, TDEC Commissioner Betsy Child wrote that contractors had described Baker as "confrontational, rude, offensive, intimidating and threatening."


Child placed Baker on paid administrative leave until an investigation is complete. She also wrote that she was considering transferring Baker from Cookeville to Knoxville.


Baker denied the assertions, saying he was guilty only of enforcing the law. He said the contractors "couldn't attack what happens in the field, so they attack my character."


Burks has not returned numerous phone messages seeking comment on her role in the meeting. Davis said Burks has not pressured TDEC officials to remove Baker.


"I've not discussed this matter with the senator," Davis said.


Davis said regulatory agencies naturally set the stage for conflict. Still, he said, it would have been "irresponsible" not to investigate the allegations against Baker because of the large number of complaints.


"We're working towards effectiveness," he said. "We lose effectiveness when the style of communication becomes the issue rather than the message we're trying to communicate."


In an e-mail to TDEC environmental employees statewide on Monday, Child said that questions about impropriety raised in a News Sentinel article on the matter are unfounded.


"No potential personnel action affects anyone's regulatory requirements under the law," Child wrote. "And no action will be taken against anyone who follows the laws, regulations and policies that govern us."


TDEC has given Baker until Friday to mount a defense against the allegations. TDEC General Counsel Joe Sanders said Baker has civil service protection and can appeal any disciplinary action.


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