Roughly 235 people are serving on Virginia boards and commissions under terms that expired by June 30, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, a number that shows the two air quality regulators Northam recently replaced were hardly alone in staying past their end dates.
Last week, Northam replaced two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board, a move that drew criticism from environmental groups and the Virginia NAACP because it comes just as the board prepares to vote on a pipeline-related compressor station Dominion Energy wants to build near a historically African-American community in Buckingham County.
The two members removed from the board had expressed concerns about the natural gas compressor station, which would serve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $7 billion project to transport natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina.
Northam’s office has said the governor was simply exercising his constitutional authority to fill the thousands of seats on Virginia’s 294 boards. But the governor has hundreds of other appointments to make before getting all state boards up to date.
A state website lists 25 vacancies for positions that expired in 2015, including five seats on the Coal and Energy Commission and 12 seats on the board of regents for the James Monroe Law Office Museum and Memorial Library. The site lists more than 80 vacancies for positions with terms that expired in June, the same month when the two replaced air board members — Rebecca Rubin and Samuel Bleicher — reached the end of their terms.
Northam replaced Rubin and Bleicher with Gail Bush, a clinical manager of respiratory care at Inova Health System, and Kajul Kapur, an environmental analyst and consultant. Records provided by the Northam administration show Kapur applied in 2015 and Bush applied this April.
Governors typically make more than 800 appointments in a year, announcing them in batches every Friday afternoon. It’s not unusual for new appointments to lag behind prescribed term limits. But the timing and volume of other expired positions on state boards has led critics to question whether the air board appointments were as routine as the Northam administration is portraying them.
“I believe the governor has been ill-advised — I don’t know by who — ill-advised to make this decision,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax. “It is really hard to explain why he would choose this time to make a change on these boards if it had nothing to do with the pending pipeline.”
Keam said he plans to introduce legislation for next year’s General Assembly session that would provide some “checks and balances” on the governor’s power by giving the legislature control of some appointments to the three boards that advise the Department of Environmental Quality, which includes the air board.
The Northam administration also replaced two members of the State Water Control Board, but that decision has sparked less outrage because the board has no pipeline-related decisions looming.
Asked if the administration prioritized making new appointments to the air and water boards, Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said the governor is “exercising his statutory authority to appoint members of his choosing to these board seats.”
“We have been reviewing a field of very qualified applicants and the governor has arrived at his decision,” Yheskel said.
In a July 26 letter to the Northam administration, Keam and other Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about the expired appointments on the water board.
“We urge you to appoint or reappoint members who are willing to serve immediately so that important decisions about the quality of water in Virginia can be considered by experienced professionals with no agenda other than their desire to uphold the public’s interest,” read the letter signed by Keam and 13 other Democratic lawmakers.
Matt Strickler, Northam’s secretary of natural resources, responded on Aug. 20, saying all members of the board “continue to serve at the pleasure of the governor, even upon the expiration of their terms.”
“This is common practice for citizen boards across state government, and often happens in the first year of an administration,” Strickler wrote. “The governor will exercise his authority to make appointments or reappointments but in the meantime, the board will maintain the same composition and function that it did prior to June 30.”
Neither letter specifically addressed the composition of the air board.
At a meeting in November, the air board opted to continue discussion and vote on a permit for the compressor station Dec. 10.
Environmental groups that supported Northam’s campaign remain incensed by his decision and see the move as an attempt by the governor to manipulate the process for an outcome favorable to Dominion. The governor’s office has said the air board appointments were not tied to the pending Dec. 10 vote.
Nevertheless, activists appear to be ramping up their efforts to make their displeasure with Northam known.
Referring to Northam’s decision, former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore on Friday tweeted, “Leaders everywhere must listen to affected communities, support Environmental Justice, and act to solve the climate crisis!”
Northam attracted more attention Monday when Dominion Energy President and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II was seen leaving the governor’s offices in the Patrick Henry Building on Capitol Square.
Acting on an anonymous tip about the meeting, environmental activist Whitney Whiting took video of Farrell leaving the building and getting into a waiting SUV.
Yheskel, the governor’s press secretary, and Jen Kostyniuk, a spokeswoman for Dominion, said the meeting was related to an upcoming initiative Dominion would be announcing. Both said the air board was not discussed.
Also in the meeting, among others, were David Paylor, the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and Diane Leopold, Dominion executive vice president and president and CEO of its gas infrastructure group, according to the governor’s office. The meeting originally had been scheduled for Nov. 8 but was rescheduled to Monday, Yheskel said.
On Saturday, two protesters with the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition disrupted the Richmond Forum in the Altria Theater to protest Northam. They were escorted out.