Canton Repository

2-1-01

Sawyer blasts proposed ombudsman guidelines 

By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley News Service 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to scrap controversial proposed guidelines that would rewrite the operations of the agency’s ombudsman
office.

“I think the whole set of guidelines (is) disheartening,’’ he said Wednesday of rules proposed by EPA officials on Jan. 3. They are likely to “exacerbate problems of delay’’ that have held up ombudsman investigations at toxic waste dumps across the nation in the past.

“I think the ombudsman ought to be able to enter a dispute more easily,’’ Sawyer said. 

An office within the EPA, the ombudsman looks into complaints or questions from the public or lawmakers relating to the EPA’s administration of Superfund sites.

Sawyer recalled that even under current EPA practices, it took him a year in the late 1990s to gain access for the ombudsman to investigate complaints at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township. The Superfund site is in his district.

“The EPA would be just as well served to withdraw the proposal and start again’’ on the guidelines, he said.

While Sawyer helped gain clearance for ombudsman Bob Martin to investigate the landfill, that probe and others across the nation came to a halt recently after EPA officials reassigned Martin’s chief investigator,
Hugh Kaufman.

The guidelines have drawn criticism from lawmakers and others who worry they would suppress the independence and effectiveness of the 17-year-old ombudsman office.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the guidelines would “hinder the ability of the ombudsman to function and perform official duties.’’ Allard and Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Fla, sponsored unsuccessful legislation last year to renew authorization for the ombudsman, established by Congress in 1984. The EPA has maintained the office even though the authorization expired in 1989.

EPA spokeswoman Helen DuTeau defended the guidelines, which she said are meant to “provide some additional guidance for helping the office provide the public the service that they need. The EPA believes the draft guidelines will improve the effectiveness of the ombudsman’s office.’’

Sawyer’s criticism arrives at a time when the future of the guidelines is unclear, and when legislation is in the works to strengthen the ombudsman office.

The rules were proposed under President Clinton, but they are up for approval under President Bush.

EPA is awaiting “guidance’’ from the new administration on how to proceed with the guidelines after a federally mandated comment period ends March 5, DuTeau said. The usual practice is for the EPA to accept or reject proposed rules after reviewing public comments on them.

Meanwhile, Allard and Bilirakis have their staffs drafting legislation that would strengthen or at least preserve the ombudsman, aides said.

Allard wants to come up with “a good strong bill governing the ombudsman’s office and that the (EPA) is comfortable with, and continues to give citizens an office they can turn to when they don’t feel their concerns are being addressed,’’ his spokesman Sean Conway said.

Bilirakis’ proposal will at least preserve the office and could expand its staff or funding, according to spokeswoman Christy Stefadouros. Bilirakis is “trying to somehow enhance the priorities, enhance the power, enhance the ability of the ombudsman’s office, possibly enhance the funding,’’ she said.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, expects to support the legislation, especially if it is similar to the attempted reauthorization he backed last year.

“Anything that weakens the office I would be extremely skeptical of,’’ he said. “The role of an ombudsman has to be one with teeth. Otherwise it becomes meaningless.’’

Sawyer has to see the legislation before determining if he will support it, an aide said.