Whitmer picks leaders to help 'fix the damn roads' and fight water contamination

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Paul Ajegba

Lansing — Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday announced a new round of key hires for her incoming administration, including leaders for environment, transportation and state police departments. 

Paul Ajegba of Ann Arbor will be the next director for the Michigan Department of Transportation after working for the agency the past 28 years. He began his MDOT career in the Engineering Development Program and most recently served as Metro Region engineer. 

Liesl Eichler Clark of Howell will serve as director of the Department of Environmental Quality. She is the co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy consulting firm and has worked as president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council and as deputy director for energy programs at the former Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth.

Liesl Eichler Clark

The environment and transportation directors — among a slew of departmental appointments Whitmer announced Thursday — are poised to play critical roles in the Democratic governor's push to “fix the damn roads” and address emerging water contamination issues across the state, including PFAS "forever chemicals."

Clark will replace Heidi Grether, a former BP lobbyist who Snyder appointed to the post in mid-2016. Dan Wyant, who had held the position since 2011, resigned in late 2015 after a Snyder-appointed task force determined the DEQ was “primarily responsible for failing to ensure safe drinking water in Flint.”

“I think that my background uniting food, energy and water is really an important intersection for the work that we have to do for the state,” Clark said in a conference call with reporters, telling them she hopes to help "turn a page" inside the environmental department, which remains under fire for the Flint water contamination crisis. 

As The Detroit News reported Wednesday, two DEQ employees have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors as part of an agreement with a special prosecutor working through term-limited Attorney General Bill Schuette's office. State regulators failed to ensure the city used proper corrosion control chemicals when it began drawing drinking water from the Flint River in April 2014.

“My approach is very much collaborative and communicative, so I don’t have all the answers,” Clark said. “But there (are) a lot of fantastic state employees, and a lot of really important expertise and knowledge in that department.”  

Whitmer said her administration is “cognizant of the fact” that some state workers may feel demoralized because of the Flint water prosecution or resulting fallout.  "There is an issue of rebuilding morale amongst our state employees, of earning the trust of the public, and these are essential to us being able to get our job done here," she said.

As for the ongoing Flint investigation, Whitmer said she hopes to work closely with Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel to “make sure we’ve got all the facts when we make decisions, and we’re going to do that in a collaborative way, but we’re also going to be very clear about what that is.”

The environmental department is “going to be fundamental to making sure that we clean up our drinking water in the state of Michigan,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer said on the campaign trail she would also create a new Department of Great Lakes and Freshwater that is also expected to house an Office of Climate Change. She has not yet announced details or leaders for those new agencies.

Ajegba will be the first new permanent transportation director since 2006, when Kirk Steudle took over the department under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Snyder retained Steudle, who resigned at the end of September, and promoted Mark Van Port Fleet to finish out the term.

Whitmer made road repairs a central theme of her campaign, vowing to pump $2 billion a year in new money into crumbling infrastructure. She may seek voter approval for bonds if the GOP-led Legislature is unwilling to raise gas taxes or registration fees for the second time since 2015.

"People are tired of government that doesn't work for us and tired of fixing their cars when the state should just be fixing the roads," Whitmer said. Ajegba has "got great relationships on both sides of the aisle because of the work he has done with the department, and he's got the vision to take us to the next level."

Regardless of any potential funding bump, Ajegba said the department "will still have to learn to be innovative (and) not be afraid to implement some innovative ideas to try and stretch that dollar."

Daniel Eichinger

Whitmer on Thursday also announced that Daniel Eichinger, the executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, will serve as director of the Department of Natural Resources. Gary McDowell, a farmer and former state representative, will lead the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Capt. Joe Gasper, who first joined the Michigan State Police in 1998 and serves as an emergency manager within the department, will serve as its director under Whitmer.

Term-limited Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican, called Gasper a “great choice” to lead the state police and said the pick was “well done."

Gasper will replace Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, who has earned praise from Snyder but sparked controversy last year for criticizing African American football players who protested racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem.

Capt. Joe Gasper

Whitmer said she considered appointing someone from outside state police ranks but is confident Gasper “is going to use this opportunity to help rectify some of the diversity challenges we have in the state police, and in law enforcement everywhere, frankly.”

Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington, appointed by Snyder in 2015, will continue in her current role.  Brig. Gen. Paul Rogers, who has served as deputy commander of the 46th Military Police Command, will lead the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Attorney Anita Fox will serve as director of the Department of Insurance and Financial Services.

Orlene Hawks, the director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman. will lead the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Lisa McCormick, who served as chief assistant to Whitmer in the Ingham County Prosecutors Office, will take over the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman.

Whitmer announced a first round of administration hires last week, including Budget Director Chris Kolb and state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks. She has not yet named a leader for the massive Department of Health and Human Services, whose current director, Snyder appointee Nick Lyon, continues to fight a manslaughter charge stemming from the Flint water crisis investigation. 

The team she is assembling “truly brings an incredible level of experience and expertise” to state government, Whitmer said. “And I know for a fact that each is highly motivated to get to work on the issues that are going to improve the daily lives of people of our state."

The governor-elect ended her Thursday morning press conference call with a tip for reporters planning to cover her inauguration outside the Michigan Capitol at noon on Jan. 1: "Wear your long underwear."