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From Sassy to Tallahassee

The news filtered through South Florida's environmental community like polluted runoff into the Biscayne Aquifer. Mary Williams, the top state-level environmental official in the region, was being transferred to the home office in Tallahassee. After nearly two years as director of the southeast district of the Florida Department of Environmental...
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The news filtered through South Florida's environmental community like polluted runoff into the Biscayne Aquifer. Mary Williams, the top state-level environmental official in the region, was being transferred to the home office in Tallahassee. After nearly two years as director of the southeast district of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection -- said by many to be the most demanding among district directorships -- the 31-year-old Williams had provoked mixed reactions. Some regarded her as a valuable environmental ally; others saw her as an unyielding and inexperienced bureaucrat. Almost everyone, however, agreed that Williams could boast one accomplishment at the very least: She had awakened the DEP's sleepy West Palm Beach office, wielding the agency's power in ways South Florida hadn't seen in years.

Williams's reassignment was announced a month ago; this past Monday she assumed duties as DEP's chief of the Bureau of Drinking Water and Ground Water Resources. (Ernest Frey, formerly the district director for the department's northeast district, has taken Williams's place in West Palm Beach; he was named acting district director.) The new position is no light-duty job: Williams now oversees state issues relating to pesticides, drinking water, and water-quality monitoring, among other environmental concerns. "It's definitely in the hot seat," affirms DEP spokeswoman April Herrle, adding that Williams is moving from a decision-implementing post to a decision-making post.

But the move is anything but a promotion. Williams, who serves at the will of DEP Secretary Virginia Wetherell, has been transferred from senior management to middle management. She has absorbed a pay cut of $4450 per year, reducing her annual salary to $62,500. And, although Williams did not respond to repeated calls requesting comment for this story, sources close to her assert that this was a transfer she neither sought nor requested.

When she came to DEP in September 1992 at age 29, Williams didn't bring the most impressive resume. She had worked for the waste-management division of the New Hampshire State Department of Environmental Services from 1990-91 before founding her own environmental consulting firm. Prior to her involvement with New Hampshire government, Williams (who holds a juris doctor's degree from the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire) had worked as a law clerk and as an office coordinator at a nuclear power station, according to her resume.

Despite her lack of environmental expertise, she was named to the Florida post by Carol Browner. At the time, Browner served as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Regulation (a forerunner of the DEP); she is now the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. "Mary has an excellent technical background but had very limited managerial experience. It's hard to imagine why she was put in that position to begin with," says DEP spokeswoman Herrle. "Some of the most difficult and controversial issues come up in South Florida. It's every issue magnified by a thousand."

By most accounts Williams displayed an aggressive posture in her new position, particularly in the face of Dade's problematic sanitary-sewer system and the chronically polluted Miami International Airport. Among her achievements: She forced Metro-Dade to enter into a consent agreement to fix the long-neglected sanitary-sewer system and strengthened the approval process by which developers secured permission for new sewer hookups. She also substantially increased state regulatory scrutiny at the airport, where soil and water pollution had persisted for decades. "I think Mary was out there trying to diagnose the problem in a climate where others wanted to cover up the problem," says one state environmental official who requested anonymity. "There's a tendency for government officials to take a monitoring role instead of actively seeking solutions."

During her tenure, Williams won the support of many local and state governmental officials. "I'm not aware of anyone in local government who has done as good a job," says another state environmental official who has held environmentally related public-sector jobs in South Florida since the late Seventies. "Under her leadership I saw a staff that was empowered to do their job. They didn't believe it at first, but when they began realizing it, they couldn't believe their luck."

Williams does have her critics. Some say her sanitary-sewer agreement with Metro-Dade was too weak and that had it been tougher, it may have prevented impatient U.S. officials from filing a suit accusing the county of violating federal environmental laws. Detractors also note that even though Williams beefed up enforcement in several areas -- including at the airport -- the DEP staff remains severely undermanned.

The transfer has generated a conspiracy of theories, the most resilient of which involve the state capital. According to one rumor, powerful builders aligned with the Democratic party complained about Williams to Gov. Lawton Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, criticizing her as insensitive to South Florida's economic viability, and pointing out that election time was growing near.

DEP Deputy Secretary Daniel Thompson says he's "very concerned" about such rumors, which have reached at least as far as his office in Tallahassee. "I've tried to convey the message that the personnel change was an internal decision related to fitting people to the best of their abilities and was not related to the way Mary was conducting business or to a desire to weaken the effort to clean up the sewer system or the airport or anything like that," Thompson explains. "There was a newly vacant position and we felt she was very suited to the position." While he admits that developers have been unhappy with the slowness with which DEP has responded to sewer permit applications, he notes, "I think they've complained about anything under the sun." Finally, he insists, any such grumblings of discontent had nothing to do with Williams's transfer.

Similarly, spokesmen from the offices of the governor and the lieutenant governor say their bosses were not involved. "I've never heard of the woman and I don't think the governor has, either," declares Tom Herndon, Chiles's chief of staff. "I'm not privy to every conversation the governor has, but if there's been a conversation of this sort, I would've heard about it." Comments gubernatorial spokeswoman Jo Miglino about McKay's alleged involvement: "No, he did not talk to Mary. No, he did not talk to [DEP Secretary Virginia Wetherell], and he really had no contact with [DEP] about that move."

Among other names and organizations attached to the rumors is the powerful Latin Builders Association. Its executive director, William Delgado, says he knows of no builders -- associated with the LBA or not -- who have complained about Williams to either Chiles, McKay, or Virginia Wetherell. "If anybody did it, it's not something that came out of the association," asserts Delgado.

Incongruously, the name of prominent local developer Armando Codina has surfaced among the gossip. "As you can imagine, I have very little clout with Lawton Chiles," remarks Codina, a Republican who is the former business partner of gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. "If a group of developers is going to meet with Governor Chiles, it would be very prudent not to take me. I've never met with Chiles [about Williams.] I haven't had a conversation with Chiles in about, oh, let me see, three years! If you talk to Ms. Williams, please tell her I had nothing to do with whatever she got. I hope she got a promotion!

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