One side's version of a bitter dispute over the internal governance of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) dominated the first public meeting of the two-year old panel, held yesterday in Washington, D.C.
The conflict pits CSB Chair Paul Hill against the three other regular members of the board, and touches on whether the chair is accountable to the board for such crucial matters as budget requests, staff appointments, and the conduct of investigations.
The dispute has intensified in recent weeks as board members acted to rescind Hill's budget proposal for 2001, and voted to have the Justice Department settle the over-all power struggle with the chair. Board members say they neither knew nor approved of Hill's latest spending request, which called on Congress to double the board's budget in 2001.
Evidently the two sides could not even agree on when to hold the CSB's first public meeting. In a letter distributed at the meeting, Hill apologized for his absence: "When this date was selected in my absence, I held a prior commitment on this date."
Hill has been on personal/medical leave since Nov. 10, and has delegated his authority to Phyllis Thompson, the board's chief operating officer. Thompson also missed yesterday's meeting.
Critics charge the CSB has been too slow in getting started, and point to the fact that the panel has issued only three incident investigation reports. At the meeting, board members did not attempt to conceal the fact that their conflict with Hill has hurt the panel's productivity.
"We do have to recognize," said board member Irv Rosenthal, that our dispute has been affecting the way the staff is able to carry out their (sic) functions."
While it was difficult for the absent Hill to make his case, there are reasons to believe the board is gaining the upper hand in the dispute. Board members appear to have won an important public relations victory just by holding the first public meeting, which Hill had resisted.
All of the stakeholders who testified during the public comment period urged the board to settle the conflict quickly so it could focus on its primary mission, but most also praised the board for putting the problem before the public.
"I think people at the meeting agreed that it was long overdue to expose these inner disputes to the disinfectant of sunshine." said Paul Orum of the Working Group on Community Right to Know, in an interview after the meeting.
Adding to the impression that Hill is increasingly isolated in his fight with the board is the fact that the CSB's own Office of General Counsel has filed a memorandum that essentially supports the board's interpretation of the law.
Perhaps most important, the board appears to have the support of a key lawmaker on Capitol Hill, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who helped draft the statute authorizing the CSB and remains one of its biggest Congressional supporters. The board released a letter from Lautenberg at the meeting, which expressed support for the board's position.
But with no end in sight to the rift, some stakeholders expressed frustration that the problem is hurting the board's ability to function.
"There is growing concern among the public interest organizations that fought to establish the board that misappropriation of authority and mismanagement are impeding the board's ability to carry out its core duties," commented Orum.