This story has been updated.
The Bureau of Land Management's Washington, D.C.-based staff ripped into senior leaders during a closed-door meeting yesterday to discuss the proposal to relocate BLM's headquarters to Colorado, expressing strong opposition to the move and frustration at the lack of information shared with them on the plan.
The more than hourlong meeting yesterday inside a packed conference room at BLM's Washington headquarters featured some fiery responses from D.C. staffers aimed at William Perry Pendley, the bureau's acting director, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by E&E News.
Not one of the more than 200 employees present expressed support for the move, exposing the true feelings of BLM's Washington staff about the proposal announced in July and authorized by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Some employees wore black at the meeting as a show of protest.
Staffers questioned the wisdom, timing and purpose of the planned move, as well as the "moral courage" of their leaders. They complained of political motivations and a general lack of transparency: The agency still hasn't told staffers exactly who will be asked to move.
Employees offered insight into the meeting and the audio recording of it on the condition of anonymity.
"This move is taking all the oxygen out of the room," one employee said. Another complained that "morale is as low as I've ever seen" in 12 years at the bureau.
At one point during the meeting, BLM Deputy Director of Operations Mike Nedd suggested it would not have been his choice to move the bureau's headquarters — a startling admission from BLM's top career official who oversees the bureau's day-to-day operations.
"I've been at this bureau for 28 years. I had the opportunity to sit in some of those meetings. If I had to make a decision, I probably would have made a different decision," Nedd said. "But I follow orders. That's what we do. We all follow orders to some degree. And anytime I don't want to follow orders, I have some choices, like go find another job or work for someone else."
Nedd would later offer a heartfelt assurance to employees that he's fighting for them, and reminded them that as deputy director of operations, his position is also scheduled to move to Grand Junction, Colo.
For his part, Pendley attempted to defuse concerns about the move by promising that the bureau would work closely with all affected employees. "The last thing in the world we want is for good people to leave the Bureau of Land Management," he said.
But Pendley appeared to agitate employees several times over the course of the meeting with vague answers to questions. He could not offer details about incentives for those who agree to move, nor could he offer a timeline for when employees have to leave, saying only that they would receive a notice by Sept. 17 that their position is being relocated.
And he apologized for the bureau's lack of transparency with employees on the relocation plan, which in addition to establishing the new headquarters in Grand Junction calls for moving about 200 other positions to state offices across the West.
Pendley, a lawyer, blamed this on the advice of Interior Department attorneys who urged caution as the agency worked to finalize details.
"I will tell you, and I mean it sincerely, I deeply regret that we have not been able to be more factually forthcoming with you prior to today," Pendley said. "It was not our intent to be less than transparent in what our plans were. I hope in the future, beginning now, we're going to do a better job."
A BLM spokesman said in an emailed statement to E&E News that the meeting represented an opportunity to "update" employees "about the relocation effort," and "to hear their questions and concerns in an open and transparent forum."
"We understand and appreciate our employees’ concerns this opportunity has brought about, and we will do everything we can to make relocation go as smoothly and compassionately as possible," the statement said.
The email did not address Nedd's comment about whether he agrees with the decision to relocate.
"Mike Nedd has been an invaluable resource in the development and execution of this plan and in his remarks, he appropriately empathized with employees because he is in the same position as many of our BLM family," it said.
But Pendley made clear that Bernhardt's decision to move the headquarters out West is final, and that the bureau's leadership has no intention of slowing down.
"We are about to sign our lease in Grand Junction," he said, adding that BLM will begin moving employees there in "the early part of the next fiscal year," which begins Oct. 1.
When an employee pressed Pendley on his assertion that the move will happen, noting that some members of Congress have vowed to fight it, he brushed aside the question.
"It is the secretary's belief that he has complied with all of the required notifications on Congress, and that Congress has been provided the opportunity to respond, and they did not respond in a negative way," Pendley said.
The 30-day congressional review period ended Aug. 15, when members of Congress were on their annual summer recess. They do not return until next week.
"Obviously, there are people who disagree," Pendley said. "But it's the secretary's conclusion that he's dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's with the required consultation with Congress."
Pendley also referenced $5.6 million that Congress appropriated in the current budget cycle for the relocation. "It's there, and we intend to utilize it, believing that that will be sufficient, and we are confident that Congress will provide additional funding" as the process advances in the months ahead, he said.
That answer seemed to rile employees, one of whom said that she understands Congress holds the "power of the purse strings" and that employees need more than assurances from Pendley "that the secretary believes, or the secretary is confident" Congress will fund the relocation.
"There is a possibility ... that Congress may say no. That is a reality of it. I think it's disingenuous to kind of put that off the table," the employee said. "And then where are we? You have people that have left; they sold [their] houses. That's not taking care of the people, and it's not taking care of the bureau's operations, because the damage is done."
Pendley responded again that Bernhardt "remains confident," drawing loud groans and even some laughter from the crowd.
He then attempted a second time to answer, saying, "We could speculate all afternoon about what could happen if this and if that" before being drowned out by more load groans of protest.
"I'm not going to go down that road," he finally said. "Sorry."
'Was something so terribly broken?'
Pendley's position on Congress will soon be put to the test.
The all-staff Washington meeting came just days before the House Natural Resources Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the relocation plan that's expected to be contentious.
While Republicans like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado support the plan, a number of prominent Democrats do not. Those include New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the ranking member of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, and Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, chairwoman of the House counterpart panel. Both have vowed to fight the move.
A source told E&E News that Pendley is considering whether to testify at the House oversight hearing, though it's not clear whether he will do so. Committee Democrats have formally invited Bernhardt to testify.
If he does testify, Pendley can expect even tougher questions from lawmakers than the ones he got at yesterday's employee meeting.
He did not appear to have many concrete answers.
One employee asked Pendley about a letter Joe Balash, the former assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, sent last week to Udall that appeared to threaten withholding "Departmental resources to your State" as punishment for Udall's opposition (Greenwire, Aug. 28; see related story).
Pendley confirmed that relocations to New Mexico are being reevaluated, prompting the employee to ask how that could be possible so late in the process.
"If that hasn't been determined already, then why are we saying this [relocation] is for the best? These are the types of decisions that should have been made prior to announcing a move if this is for the best for the BLM," the employee said. "How is that not determined already?"
Pendley answered, "I can't explain," once again drawing loud groans from the crowd.
Another unidentified employee ripped into Pendley, questioning the "moral courage" of BLM leadership for not opposing Bernhardt's decision to relocate.
"How did we get here as far as moving us? Was something so terribly broken?" said the employee, who identified himself as a former Marine, like Pendley.
"Did anybody have the moral courage to stand up to that secretary and tell him, 'Hey, this is not a good move?' Did anybody do that in the leadership? Did anybody say that?" he asked. "I would say probably not, because if you all took the time out to talk to each and every individual in this room to see how it would impact them and their family, you probably would not have made that move to Colorado or wherever they're designated to go out West.
"So that's all I've got to say," he said, to roaring applause.
Pendley responded: "It was a decision made before I got there, but it's a decision I fully embrace and that I intend to complete."