W.Va. Officials Differ On Best Way to Reform State’s Emergency Services Structure
CHARLESTON – State and county officials are butting heads over the best way to reform the troubled Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The governor’s office wanted to give permanent oversight of the division to the West Virginia National Guard and take the guard from underneath the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety and make it a cabinet-level position. It still wants to create a new position to be between the governor and state agencies to handle emergencies and natural disasters.
County officials involved with emergency services at the local level believe that with former homeland security director and adviser Jimmy Gianato gone, the division can be reformed without the need to take it out from under the department ran by Secretary Jeff Sandy.
“There is nothing wrong with the WVDHSEM structure,” said Laura Pysz, vice president of the West Virginia Emergency Management Council. “Just like a fire department with a bad fire chief, you don’t restructure it and put it under the police department – you get a new chief.”
EYE OF THE STORM
Gianato, first appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin in 2005, served as both the director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and homeland security adviser for nearly 15 years under three governors. He was removed as homeland security director in October 2018 and resigned as homeland security adviser in March after bungling several federal emergency grant programs during his tenure.
Due to Gianato’s handling of grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA placed the state on manual reimbursement, causing delays in how quickly the state can draw down money from the agency’s public assistance and hazard mitigation grant programs. The lack of oversight of grant sub-recipients by Gianato’s homeland security division resulted in alleged waste, fraud and abuse by Richwood town officials who are accused of diverting grant money for their own salaries.
Legislative auditors learned about the FEMA penalty during research for a report released in December 2018. The audit was requested by Sandy, the first cabinet appointment by Gov. Jim Justice for secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which currently oversees both the homeland security division and the National Guard.
Starting May 13, 2018, Sandy put Thom Kirk, his deputy secretary and legal counsel, and Michael Todorovich, a retired National Guard colonel, in charge of an internal audit of homeland security. According to the previously unreleased audit, Sandy also requested the Legislative Auditor’s Office start its own audit of the division in a letter dated May 20, 2018.
“The charge from Secretary Sandy to Kirk and Todorovich was to report on the status of the Post Audit Review; the Legislative Performance Evaluation and Research Division’s audit; and the FEMA audits conducted on (homeland security),” according to the department’s audit supervisory report.
While Gianato was praised for his ability to manage natural disasters, the internal audit found that his management style was a disaster of its own. Nearly a third of positions at homeland security needed to be filled at the time, including seven emergency services technicians, a chief financial officer and several positions dealing with grant management.
“The biggest thing we found in talking to our federal counterparts early on … was how understaffed the DHSEM office was as far as planners, strategic people, those who can work the federal grants and follow-ups with the auditing,” said Brian Abraham, general counsel for Justice, in a phone call Thursday. “Money was ample through the FEMA grants to bring on staff to do that. Despite the directive that was given to (Gianato), they just never could get that done.”
The employees the division did have suffered from low morale and lack of leadership, according to the internal audit. There was next to no organizational structure, supervisors could not do their jobs without being micromanaged by Gianato and the division suffered from neglect of grant monitoring and inventory management.
The report submitted by Kirk and Todorovich included several suggestions, including that Todorovich be named the new director of the homeland security division. It recommended payraises to aid in retaining employees and recruit new staff to fill vacancies and create a new organizational chart and chain of command.
It also, at the time, recommended keeping Gianato on as homeland security adviser.
“This allows (Gianato) to continue in the role of homeland security on a state and national level,” Kirk said. “It also makes him available to advise the governor, the secretary and the national guard in times of state crises, which is where he has shown exceptional skills.”
By the beginning of October 2018, Gianato was out as director, Todorovich was in and the homeland security division was placed under the National Guard and Adj. Gen. James Hoyer. Justice, in a letter to Hoyer, Gianato and Sandy, said he would introduce legislation to make this arrangement permanent.
“Excessively complex and disjointed plans can be deficient and ineffective, exasperating, a crisis situation and delaying recovery operation,” Justice wrote. “The adjutant general’s department activities is uniquely positioned with the personnel, equipment and experience to serve such a role.”
IN THE ARMY NOW
Before the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, there was the Office of Emergency Services. After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The new agency combined several agencies and focused on immigration and customs, emergency preparedness and transportation security.
Many states followed suit and broadened agencies to deal with a multitude of issues. In April 2005, Manchin signed House Bill 3328, renaming the Office of Emergency Services and placing homeland security within the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. Three months later, Gianato, previously the director of the McDowell County Office of Emergency Services since 1991, was named the first director of the new division.
In wake of Gianato’s retirement and his 15-year involvement with homeland security since its inception, the governor’s office felt like it was time to change how the division operates.
A week after the start of the 2019 legislative session on Jan. 9, the governor introduced Senate Bill 326. The bill would have permanently put homeland security under the National Guard and removed the National Guard from the supervision of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The bill would have also created a state resiliency officer/homeland security adviser to serve as a liaison between the governor, the National Guard, homeland security and other state agencies during emergencies.
Several groups, including the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, the West Virginia 911 Council and the National Volunteer Fire Council have come out against the proposed restructuring of the homeland security division.
Some are concerned the bill takes oversight away from the division, that it puts too much power in the hands of one person, that the new structure could divert FEMA grant money away from counties and cities and that it creates a pipeline for retired National Guard officers to take jobs at higher salaries through the state’s Military Authority.
According to state code, the Military Authority was established to allow the National Guard to be able to hire civilians using federal funding and outside the rules of the state Division of Personnel. The authority administers national security, homeland security and other support services.
Abraham said this system will allow the homeland security division to increase staff in times of disaster, recruit quality candidates and decrease staff as needed.
“To get people of the quality you need, you have to be able to pay at a scale that those kinds of jobs have the requirements for,” Abraham said. “That’s why we made the decision to use the Military Authority, which is not quote-unquote the military, but the vehicle by which the Legislature allowed exemption for them to bring on civilian personnel in times when staffing was needed and they’re only there for the duration of the need.”
The structure being proposed by Justice is not that unusual in other states. According to the National Governor’s Association, 44 percent of states have homeland security agencies as an independent cabinet-level department or agency. As of 2017, nine states either house homeland security and emergency services agencies within the National Guard structure or the adjutant generals wear the hats of homeland security and emergency management directors.
The governor’s office also had planned to submit a similar version of SB 326 during the special session that is currently on pause, but the bill is being re-done to alleviate the concerns of county emergency services directors. In the new bill being drafted, homeland security will remain under the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The National Guard will still move and it still calls for a state resiliency officer/homeland security adviser.
“That was based upon not necessarily the concerns we heard from the county officials, but it was an effort to placate them so that we can try to push through the more important part, and that was getting the resiliency office in place,” Abraham said. “It would establish a proper chain of command in times of need … if DHSEM is their biggest concern. It’s not worth fighting the fight.”
One of the counties that started raising concerns about the new homeland security structure was Wood County. Rick Woodyard, 911 director, briefed the Wood County Commission last week about concerns that the state Emergency Management Council had with the bill.
Speaking on the phone Thursday, Woodyard said he was unaware of the changes to the most recent draft of the bill.
“Based on our discussion my opinion would be we’d have to take a step back and see what the entire legislation is going to detail in the final draft,” Woodyard said. “Our request was if there were any updates to the bill to please let us know in writing and we could review and respond back.”
The governor’s office plans to talk about the updated legislation with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Flooding in Charleston. Abraham said they also still hope to put the bill on the special session agenda.