Pomp, circumstance and a new era at the DEP

The swearing-in of Daniel C. Esty as the new commissioner of environmental protection blossomed Friday into a celebration for Esty and a milestone for an agency that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to quickly embrace a broader new mission.

Conservation officers in red dress tunics and flat-brimmed Stetsons snapped to attention as Malloy and Esty approached an auditorium crowded with curious employees, environmental advocates, legislators, utility regulators and a state labor leader.

Esty ceremony

Gov. Dannel Malloy administers the oath to DEP Commissioner Daniel Esty.

Esty is one of Malloy’s stars, a Yale professor with a national reputation for new ideas about reconciling environmentalism and economic growth. Malloy wants Esty to head a reconstituted agency that will safeguard the environment while acting as a catalyst for economic development and a watchdog over energy policy.

“I’ve asked Dan Esty to take this responsibility, to re-engineer this department with all of you in this room,” Malloy said. “This new charge of this new department is very important.”

Esty hopes to be the last commissioner of DEP and the first commissioner of a proposed Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which will require the approval of the General Assembly.

“It is a challenging time to be in government. We do have a lot to do to transform this department into a Department of Energy and Environmental Protection,” Esty told his employees. “And as all of you who work here have heard me say, we’re going to have a third ‘E,’ and that’s the economy, in mind every day. We do have to contribute to the governor’s agenda of rebuilding a platform for economic growth.”

With blunt public comments about the need to streamline permitting procedures, the new commissioner already has stirred the bureaucracy at the DEP headquarters, a former insurance company home office down the hill from the State Capitol, across from Bushnell Park.

The building has many accouterments worthy of a corporate headquarters, including a sunny auditorium on an upper floor, where Esty took the oath of office from Malloy, who joked about size and plush wood paneling in his new commissioner’s office.

More than almost any other state agency, the DEP is facing pressure to do business differently as it takes on an expanded mission, following years of a shrinking staff.

Malloy has proposed folding utility regulators into the new, expanded department. Several utility commissioners sat in the row behind Esty and his family. Across the aisle sat legislators, including co-chairs of the Environment Committee and the Energy and Technology Committee.

Behind them were DEP employees, environmental advocates and other guests, including John Olsen, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the way this administration has started,” said Roger Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “Obviously, nothing has really happened yet. But we’re very enthusiastic about the way things are moving.”

Reynolds was among those who said the ceremony Friday conveyed the Malloy administration’s ambitions for a department that has lost staff and, to a degree, credibility at the General Assembly.

“Did you see how surprised the DEP was that the governor had walked into the building? I mean, that really says something. This agency has been an afterthought. It hasn’t got the resources and attention that an agency that is this central to the environment and the economy is,” Reynolds said.

Malloy said he sees the expanded DEP, along with transportation and education policies and a reorganized economic-development agency as “really the front line of our job creation agenda over the next 10 and 20 years.”

Environmentalists say they are comfortable with the new mission, if the agency still can perform its historic central role of environmental protection.

“This agency has always been central to the economy. If you don’t get permits through, if you don’t have the resources to staff adequately, if you don’t reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, the economy is going to suffer,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think any of the recent governors in history have really understood that.”

Chris Phelps, the program director of Environment Connecticut, a policy group, said many in the environmental movement already had embraced a broader view of environmentalism.

“It’s about energy, environment and the economy,” said Phelps, who also attended the ceremony. “These things are intertwined.”

Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, the ranking Republican on the Environment Committee, said Esty is a dynamo, perhaps the most impressive appointment by an administration that he sees as full of bright, energetic appointees.

Roraback, who was elected in 1994, the start of 16 years of Republican rule in the governor’s office, said the Capitol needed a dramatic change.

“There was a staleness about the place, and it has been upended,” he said.

But Roraback said the expectations are high, especially for Esty, whose portfolio of issues is vast. He said he knows that Esty has a work ethic to match his intellect–he has a habit of returning emails late into the night–but he will have to win over the bureaucracy.

“It’s the same orchestra over there. They have a new conductor,” Roraback said.

And amid the good feelings about a new, enthusiastic commissioner are questions about the efficiencies that Esty says he will bring to both the compliance and permitting functions of the department.

Malloy smiled when asked about the doubts.

“It’s a demonstration of how broken Connecticut is that people don’t think you can be efficient and environmentally friendly,” Malloy said. “I know you can.”

“We’ve got very smart people, and we have to empower them to do their jobs, to give them the right laws to do their jobs, and then we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “And that’s what I’m looking to do.”