INTERIOR

BLM staffers face looming deadline to relocate or quit

The Bureau of Land Management is expected next week to hand employees in its D.C. headquarters formal notices of relocation to Colorado and other states in the West, according to multiple sources.

The letters will kick off a 30-day period in which staffers must decide to move or potentially leave the bureau.

BLM managers have been instructed to ensure that as many staffers as possible are in town the week of Nov. 12, when the notices will be hand-delivered to the roughly 30 positions moving to BLM's new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and to the nearly 200 others being relocated to state offices across the West as part of a broad reorganization plan, the sources said.

Delivery of the formal "management directed geographic reassignment" forms — as outlined by BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley in an email to staff last month — starts the 30-day clock for affected employees "to decide whether to accept reassignment."

Those who check the box on the standard forms committing to relocate will then have "an additional 90 days in which to report to your new duty station," Pendley wrote in the email that notified employees the forms would be delivered "in the coming weeks" (E&E News PM, Oct. 8).

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BLM already notified staffers in September exactly where their jobs are headed as part of the reorganization (Greenwire, Sept. 18). Some fear a large number of employees will ultimately decide to leave the bureau.

A BLM spokesman declined to confirm that the reassignment letters would go to employees next week.

But the bureau said in an emailed statement to E&E News, "We sincerely hope employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations but there are many factors that an individual may consider when deciding whether or not to relocate."

The BLM statement also echoed previous assurances by Pendley, both in the email to staff last month and in testimony to Congress in September, that Interior and BLM would help employees who want to stay in D.C. find jobs within the bureau if possible.

"Our desire is to retain the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our experienced staff, but we recognize that your personal desires or situations may not be compatible with our decisions," Pendley wrote in the staff email. "We stand ready, willing, and able to be of assistance to you."

'Loss of talent'

It's not clear how many of the roughly 200 employees in the Washington, D.C., headquarters will agree to move.

But several sources, including one current BLM official, said informal surveys of employees indicated that as many as half, if not more, may decline to move and take Pendley's offer of help to find positions at other Interior Department offices in the nation's capital.

"We expect many employees to leave the agency, and, in fact, several already have," said Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a BLM retirees' group. "The loss of talent at the BLM headquarters will have a long-term impact on the management of the public lands."

Because the relocation could be considered an "adverse personnel action," reassigned employees may be able to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, sources said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has said relocating senior leadership out West will improve public lands management and bureau operations by placing decisionmakers near most of the 245 million acres of federal lands BLM manages, as well as the state and local leaders most affected by bureau actions.

Bernhardt in September approved a proposal to offer those who agree to move "a one-time lump sum payment" equal to 25% of their annual base pay. To qualify, employees must first "sign a written service agreement committing to complete two years of employment with the BLM" in the new location (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

BLM said in its statement to E&E News that it will help "employees who are not able to or choose not to relocate" find positions "within the Department of the Interior in the D.C. area," if possible. The statement also says BLM will offer "résumé-writing and interviewing workshops," as well as "training and assistance to pursue job opportunities through USAJobs."

The bureau will also make information available to employees on "retirement options," the statement said.

The BLM headquarters move, announced by Bernhardt in July, remains controversial, and Congress declined to appropriate any money for the move in the proposed fiscal 2020 budget.

Instead, BLM is using $5.6 million Congress appropriated in the fiscal 2019 budget for the relocation. If that's insufficient, a source told E&E News, BLM could use unspent funds from the fiscal 2019 budget cycle that were not appropriated by Congress for a specific purpose — referred to as "no year" money.

The General Services Administration has already executed a lease for office space in Grand Junction to house BLM's new headquarters (Greenwire, Sept. 23).

'Drain the swamp'

Some critics have suggested that moving BLM leadership outside of Washington, where decisions on policies and budgets are made, will essentially dismantle the bureau.

The Public Lands Foundation on Friday sent out an email to its members asking for donations to "fight the dismantling of the BLM!"

"We continue to maintain that the Secretary's plans are a terrible idea" that, if implemented, would "result in a significant 'brain drain' of experienced and professional multi-disciplinary staff of senior resource specialists and managers, should many Washington Office employees choose to leave the BLM voluntarily or be forced out by administrative action," the PLF email says.

That apparently would be fine with some Trump administration officials.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney raised eyebrows for comments he made during a speech last summer to Republican leaders in South Carolina (Greenwire, Aug. 5). Mulvaney said relocating federal employees outside of Washington is a great way to "drain the swamp" by reducing the federal workforce.

"By simply saying to people, 'You know what, we're going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out to the real part of the country,' and they quit," Mulvaney said.

"What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven't been able to do for a long time," he said.

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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