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A botched roll-out for the new head of the scandal-plagued state Department of Environmental Quality

There’s a new chief for the embattled state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) but the effort to restore confidence to the agency that was a huge part of the Flint water crisis is off to a rocky start.

An announcement is made

Governor Rick Snyder last week named Heidi Grether, a veteran state government manager, to lead the DEQ.

The rollout was done via press release and, when asked, interview requests were declined. Grether won’t talk until she officially begins the job in two weeks, which left a clear path for critics of the appointment, and the Snyder administration, to own the conversation.

And that left the Lansing political and communications establishment scratching its collective heads once again as to exactly what the Snyder administration’s communications strategy is. And whether it has one.

Not by the book

There’s a way these personnel roll-outs are done. And the Snyder administration broke almost all the rules with Grether. “She’s got no one defending her, no one talking about her,” John Truscott, former communications chief for Governor John Engler, said. “Right now, unfortunately, she’s just become a punching bag.”

Truscott finds the Snyder administration’s handling of the appointment baffling, “you don’t want to send a new person in late in the administration working from behind like this… it’s a distraction that you don’t want to saddle her with and, unfortunately, that’s what it’s become.”

Why the controversy?

By some measures, Grether is a solid choice. She’s spent time in Lansing working in state government. She understands how the state capitol works.

But, that’s not what folks are focusing on because Grether also spent much of her career representing the oil and gas industry. She was a lobbyist for BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And this has turned out to be a flashpoint the administration was unready to answer for.

Putting Grether out front to answer the criticisms would have helped blunt the attacks. But the administration also failed to recruit surrogates to speak on her behalf.

Democrats, environmentalists, Flint water activists and others zeroed in on the fact that Grether prevented new laws in the wake of the oil disaster. And that dominated the conversation for the first 24 hours following the announcement while the Snyder administration and allies remained mostly silent.

Putting Grether out front to answer the criticisms would have helped blunt the attacks. But the administration also failed to recruit surrogates to speak on her behalf or people who’ve known and worked with her dating back to the Engler administration.

What comes next?

Grether’s appointment is subject to the advise and consent authority of the state Senate. The Republican-controlled Senate will almost certainly allow the appointment to go through.

But a confirmation hearing, while uncomfortable, might also serve as a forum for Grether to defend her credentials and her vision for the department that’s widely not trusted and, as a result, suffering from a morale problem.

Making and defending high profile appointments are political campaigns of a sort.

It’s like a painting. Every stroke on the canvass helps create the picture. Right now, when it comes to the DEQ leadership changeover, that canvass is a dark portrait -- because the Snyder administration didn’t take brush in hand.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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