Leah Feldon’s tenure as director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality became permanent Friday.
The state Commission on Environmental Quality voted unanimously to move her from interim director to head of the agency over another final candidate: emergency manager and former Oregon congressional candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
The five governor-appointed commission members made the decision after two days of interviews with the candidates, who were named in January after a three-month national search conducted by EFL Associates, a Denver-based recruiting firm. The state paid the company $49,600 for its work, according to the contract provided by the DEQ. McLeod-Skinner was encouraged to apply by Commission Chair Kathleen George, according to her cover letter.
Feldon will lead more than 700 employees who work on state and federal programs to protect Oregon’s air, water and land, and an annual budget of about $270 million. She worked in the Department of Environmental Quality for 17 years, primarily in the Office of Compliance and Enforcement. She has spent the past six years as deputy director to former director Richard Whitman, who resigned three months before his planned retirement. Department spokesman Harry Esteve said at the time that Whitman’s decision was due to personal reasons. Feldon served as interim director in Whitman’s place since September.
The final interviews on Friday morning were broadcast via Zoom and attended virtually by at least 100 people. In his interview, Feldon said he would prioritize expanding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the agency and fill an empty capital ? director position. She said she will lead collaboration within the agency and with people across the state.
“We will continue to reach out to communities and stakeholders to find out: Where do they see problems? What do they see as areas where we need to innovate and do things better?” she said. “At its core, it’s not just relying on your own ideas. It’s knowing you’re not in a leadership position because you know everything,” she said.
Feldon said she has spent the past six years as vice principal building a leadership team she trusts. “I don’t like being there by myself,” she said.
Asked about the challenges ahead, she said the agency is funded for new initiatives, but not for long-term needs. She said transparency with lawmakers about what the agency can do with its budget is key.
“When we’re not funded for something, we have to stop doing it,” she said. “My job is going to be to make sure that I’m talking to the legislators and I’m talking to the governor’s office and I’m saying, ‘This is no longer funded and we really can’t do it, and I want you to keep that in mind.’
Lauren Goldberg, director of the nonprofit conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper, said Felden has the integrity and experience to lead the agency. She also hopes Feldon will use his full powers to protect Oregon’s environment.
“We hope to see the new DEQ director use the agency’s full authority to protect clean water, public health and our climate,” she said.
The group is one of several that petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency three years ago to exercise its enforcement authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act and intervene in water pollution problems in Morrow and Umatilla counties. The petitioners said state agencies had allowed nitrate contamination of groundwater to worsen and further contaminate drinking water in wells used by thousands of residents in the region. Goldberg said holding drinking water polluters in Morrow and Umatilla counties accountable is among the group’s top priorities.
“Oregon needs a leader who can stand up to powerful special interests. We hope that Leah is that person,” Goldberg said.
In his cover letter, Feldon said the state faces complex challenges in responding to natural disasters caused by climate change, transitioning away from fossil fuels in the face of growing energy demand and addressing water quality and quantity issues for both businesses , as well as for people.
“We must determine whether our ‘tried and true’ regulatory mechanisms are truly protecting communities experiencing disproportionate environmental burdens,” she wrote. “This challenge requires careful consideration and determination to ensure we meet the public health needs across our state.”
Feldon is a graduate of the University of Dayton, a private college in Ohio, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. She received her law degree in environmental and natural resource sciences from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland in 2004 and began working at DEQ shortly after graduation.
Feldon’s salary and official start date have not yet been determined, George said.