With 189 Unfilled Jobs at NMED, Staff Vacancy Gets Worse Under Lujan Grisham and Secretary Kenney Than During Martinez Years

Originally Published in The Candle

When She Left Office, Governor Martinez’s NMED Had An Employee Vacancy Rate of 18%

Despite Budget and Position Increases, as of May 1, 2024 Governor Lujan Grisham’s NMED Has An Employee Vacancy Rate of 26% – With Some Key Bureaus, Such as the Air Quality Bureau’s Enforcement Unit, Having Vacancy Rates of 40% or Higher.

On several occasions over more than two years, The Candle has asked to interview Secretary James Kenney or speak with his senior team members about the chronic under staffing at NMED. As recently as last week questions were submitted to NMED. Secretary Kenney, and his staff have consistently refused to respond. The reporting here is taken from official state records and from interviews with NMED employees who left state service in the past few years due to the failure of NMED senior leadership to properly prepare and provide for a sufficient and strong workforce. The May 2024 State Employee Organizational Listings Report, a critical source document, can be viewed at the end of this article.

Five Years of Failed Leadership at NMED Feeds Serious Under-staffing

In 2019, when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed James Kenney to run New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED), environmental advocates were optimistic.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Rebecca Moss wrote just twenty days after Lujan Grisham took office, “Environmental experts have expressed optimism over Kenney’s appointment and said he seemed like a confident pick for one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the state — particularly at a time when oil and gas production has been rapidly expanding.

New Mexico’s Environment Department Employees were excited.

After eight years of Governor Susana Martinez’s administration, they felt their cries for more help and competitive compensation for retention and recruitment would be addressed.

With Kenney at the helm of the agency and the new governor having almost a billion dollars in additional revenue available for vital services such as protecting precious resources like water and air, NMED employees felt brighter days were on the horizon.

And Kenney said all the right things to encourage folks that he was there for them.

In a January 2019, interview with Laura Paskus of New Mexico Political Report, Kenney offered this about the NMED workforce:

“First and foremost, civil servants, public employees, have a tough time. I think one of the things that is really important to me is making sure that people who are at NMED are valued, are respected, are heard.

To be sure, the problems regarding NMED staffing during and at the end of the Martinez administration were well known within the environmental community.

Rebecca Moss reported in her January 2019, Santa Fe New Mexican story, that while Kenney was “eager to build capacity” others warned of how bad it had gotten.

Quoting an expert, Moss wrote, “The agency has many, many vacancies, and a lot of talent is gone,” said Thomas Singer with the Western Environmental Law Center. “And he will have his hands full getting competent people in place to enforce the state’s laws.”

According to New Mexico Sunshine Portal records reviewed by The Candle, when Martinez left office at the end of December 2018, Lujan Grisham and Kenney were handed an agency with 519 employees and 636 authorized and funded positions – a vacancy rate of 18% (about 117 unfilled positions).

Those numbers comport with the reporting that Moss did in January 2019:

“According to Environment Department general counsel Jennifer Hower, there is an 18 percent vacancy rate at the Environment Department, or about 117 open positions, though some hiring is in taking place. The transition memo also cites one bureau chief saying the Martinez administration “has been cruel with the budget. … We have not been allowed to fill these critical positions.”

NMED employees were hoping for significant help with increased staff.

Environmental activists were feeling a bit optimistic based on pronouncements of both Kenney and the Governor.

Although the word “environment” never crossed the lips of the new Governor in her first “State of the State” address in 2019, she did offer some encouraging words:

“… I will direct each state agency to participate in developing a comprehensive climate plan for New Mexico that responds to the threat of a warming planet by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution

… Wasteful methane emissions can be cut, and in the process this state will make more money and more New Mexicans will be put to work.

Her rhetoric was appealing, and the guy she chose to lead the agency that is supposed to clean up the pollution and prevent further problems, said all the right things.

All that was needed was the day to day commitment to restore and increase the ranks of the scientists and supportive staff who spent eight years protecting the environment the best that could be expected through the Martinez years of favored treatment of the oil and gas lobby.

During the first year of Kenney’s stewardship of the agency, NMED saw a small decrease in vacancies – state records show that in March 2020, there were about the same amount of authorized and funded positions, with about 527 NMED employees – eight more than when he took over – with a vacancy rate of about 17%.

That was Then, And Then Things Got Worse … The Disappointment

Between May and October of 2020, the vacancy rate was again on the rise.

While there is a knee-jerk assumption that due to the onset of COVID 19 in 2020 and 2021, things generally got sideways in state government, NMED actually saw an increase in the number of positions added to its operations.

About 29 jobs were added between May of 2020 and the Spring of 2021. Many of those jobs were added to the Occupational Safety Bureau which was ramped up to be sure employers were complying with COVID 19 protocols to protect essential workers.

During this time, the number of actual employees at the NMED increased by 25, then began dropping again.

But, by May of 2021, there were 133 vacant positions compared to the 117 Vacancies when Kenney took control of the agency.

The Following is a Chart of Sample Months of Staffing at NMED From March of 2020 through May of 2024 From the Official Monthly State Organizational Listings Report

As NMED Receives Additional Funding, Kenney Tries a Head-Fake To Defer Blame About Under-staffing

In April of 2021, the Legislature approved more than a 20% increase in NMED’s budget for the next fiscal year beginning in July of 2021.

Camilla Feibelman, who at that time was the director of Sierra Club’s Rio Grande Chapter, told reporters that various environmentalists had asked legislators to increase the NMED budget.

According to reporting of Scott Wayland, another Santa Fe New Mexican reporter, Feibelman told him regarding the needs of NMED, “Being put in a position where the economic crisis demands permitting but the economic crunch limits oversight and enforcement is potentially a total disaster for our air and water and community health.”

There is no doubt that NMED needed more funding, especially in light of the added duties placed on an already over-burdened workforce with new and better laws and regulations to enforce against polluters.

But the Lujan Grisham administration, and Secretary Kenney in particular, were not paying attention to the basics of running a state agency – like dealing with a strong Human Resources bureau and fixing the hiring apparatus that became almost dormant during the Martinez administration.

From our discussions with NMED personnel, Kenney’s claim that what is really important to him “is making sure that people who are at NMED are valued, are respected, are heard,” seemed really insincere.

Employees repeatedly attempted to get Kenney and his executive team to address serious underpayment of NMED personnel for several years.

They also expressed disgust over seeing the raises Kenney negotiated for himself with the Governor, as well as large increases he authorized for his senior team, while ignoring fair rank and file scientist and support staff salary compensation.

Many in the environmental community were seemingly unaware at how many funded jobs at NMED continued to be vacant after Lujan Grisham had been in office for more than a year.

While it is fair to characterize the Martinez administration’s refusal to fill positions as cruel and harmful to sound environmental policy, where is the public criticism of Lujan Grisham and Kenney for squandering five years of increased positions and resources and presiding over an actual increase in vacancy rates?

Kenney was quick to redirect the blame about staffing problems at his agency on not having enough funding – and that it had a bad impact on NMED’s ability to meet its mission.

He told Scott Wayland that his agency’s budget was “tight” and it was forced to “pick one community over another” when it came to investigating matters dealing with “air, water, food, hazardous waste and worker safety.”

Wayland reported Kenney saying, “When you have the staff and the budget, you can make differences in communities more equally and across the state — which we’ve been lacking for 10 years,” said.

But Kenney never mentioned he and his senior management had consistently failed to fill more than 125 open and funded positions during the same year he was claiming NMED was underfunded.

In fact, upon review of the state’s official employee listings for April of 2021 (as Kenney was speaking with Wayland), NMED had 127 positions which Kenney or his executive team could have filled if they been paying attention to their managerial responsibilities for the agency.

NMED Continues to Get More Funding and Fails to Fill Positions

While advocates feel there is a case to be made for more funding for NMED, Kenney continues to fail to use the resources at his disposal to staff the agency. As recently as this month, with the additional funds provided by the legislature, the agency has 189 unfilled positions – that is a vacancy rate of 26%.

Looking at the chart below, from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, it is obvious that NMED has seen substantial increases in funding since the beginning of the Lujan Grisham – Kenney era.

The General Fund Appropriations for the agency has more than doubled, rising to over $32 million, for FY-2025.

And yet Kenney can only try a head-fake when it comes to explaining why there are almost 200 vacant, funded positions he and his leadership team have failed to fill, despite having been in control for over five years.

Employees are suggesting it is time to for this administration to address its own failures and fix them – instead of pointing a finger at others.

The Organizational Listing Report is by published at the beginning of each month. It is a tool that managers of every agency can utilize. The following is the report for the month of May 2024. For those interested, The Candle’s sister publication, Roundhouse Movidas recently began publishing this report each month. There is a link to the most recent report on the home page of Roundhouse Movidas labeled with a bright yellow highlighted button.

Click Here for an Article in The Candle More Than Two Years Ago, Entitled, Without a Full Crew, MLG and Kenney Steer NMED Toward Failure – Despite New Methane and Ozone Regulation Policies