Environmental groups press EPA on info office director

A coalition of environmental groups has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to appoint as the head of its new Information Office the director of an organization that helps government agencies make public information available online.

In a letter to EPA administrator Carol Browner, the groups, representing a dozen regional and national environmental organizations, endorsed John Chelen, the executive director of the Unison Institute, a nonprofit group that helps government agencies and other organizations build information systems to collect and disseminate information online.

More than a decade ago, Chelen was instrumental in making the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory -- a database of chemical pollution -- free and easy for the public to use. The system became a model for other online government databases.

In its July 26 letter, the environmental groups said Chelen has "demonstrated an ability to work with all sectors, including state and local government, industry and the media." In addition, the letter said, Chelen's technical experience "would contribute significantly to EPA's effort to use information as a strategic national resource."

An EPA spokeswoman said Chelen is "one of many candidates" and that "no decision has been made" about who to appoint.

Chelen was unavailable for comment, but he has said in the past that he is interested in the job. The person who holds the position, which carries the dual titles of national program manager and chief information officer, will be responsible for EPA's information systems and how the data stored in those systems is collected and used.

By bringing IT managers and policy-makers together under a single, high-level manager, EPA hopes to make it easier for industry to report its data, integrate the systems that store and process that data and provide more accurate, timely information to the public.

Meanwhile, Al Pesachowitz, EPA's current CIO, said the agency is wrapping up its selections for the rest of its management team. He said that by the end of this month the agency plans to make official the appointment of assistant deputy administrator Margaret Schneider as the deputy national program manager for the Information Office and to choose middle-level managers.

The office may not be entirely staffed, however, until the end of September because all the employees affected by the reorganization have to be formally reassigned. Sources inside and outside EPA suggested this amounts to a delay, but Pesachowitz said "the staffing has always been less sure. We'll be able to hit the ground running at the beginning of the fiscal year."

Pesachowitz will have a new position, which also will be announced by the end of this month.

In a recent interview, Chelen said he might not be the most acceptable candidate. "I've been told I'm too 'right to know,' " he said, referring to a policy advocated by environmentalists that the public has a right to the information in EPA's databases.

With OMB Watch, a regulatory watchdog group, Unison operates a Web site called the Right-to-Know Network, which offers free access to government databases on the environment and housing.

Although EPA has endorsed right to know in its budget, it is controversial because many regulated companies do not want all the information they report to EPA to be widely available.

The job is expected to be a political appointment that the Senate would confirm, making it the most high-profile civilian CIO position in the federal government. The CIOs in most civilian agencies are civil servants, although a few, such as at the Treasury Department, are lower-level political appointees.

Gary Bass, executive director with OMB Watch, which is promoting Chelen for EPA CIO, said Chelen would bring an understanding of information policy and technology to the job that could "bridge the gap" that has traditionally existed between policy-makers and IT managers. "My fear is that this kind of office can be overrun by tech talk or just the reverse: The policy dominates, and the technology doesn't get woven in," Bass said.

Steve Brown, research director with the Environmental Council of the States, an EPA advisory group, said Chelen's name is the only one that he has heard floated for the job. "We don't know of any other names in the ring," he said, "at least not seriously in the ring."

Brown said the council would not endorse any candidate, but "we've never had any spat" with Chelen. He said the council has asked EPA to include in the leadership of the Information Office someone who is familiar with how state environmental programs work because most of the information in EPA's databases comes from the states.

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