Archive for Sunday, January 20, 2008

Decision maker

Coal plant denial puts former city leader in national spotlight

January 20, 2008


A look at the life of Rod Bremby

A look at the life of Rod BrembyRodBremby Timeline »

Rod Bremby's decision in October to deny Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s air quality permit for two coal-fired plants in southwest Kansas was based on concerns about carbon emissions and global warming.

Rod Bremby's decision in October to deny Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s air quality permit for two coal-fired plants in southwest Kansas was based on concerns about carbon emissions and global warming.

For days, Lawrence had been drenched in torrential rains. The Kansas River overtook the banks, water filled basements and first floors of houses and streets were closed down.

Each day, Lawrence Assistant City Manager Rod Bremby stood before the media taking questions, deflecting rumors and reassuring the public.

Yes, the levee was still holding. No, the wastewater treatment plant is not threatened. Drinking water should be boiled. Here's the number for the emergency preparedness hot line.

As the river raged and rain poured, Bremby stayed calm and confident.

Colleagues point to the flood of 1993 as a defining moment for Bremby.

Almost 15 years later and now serving as secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Bremby is at the center of another storm with national implications.

Bremby's decision in October to deny Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s air quality permit for two coal-fired plants in southwest Kansas was based on concerns about carbon emissions and global warming.

Environmentalists proclaimed Bremby a hero, casting him as David up against the Goliath interest of energy companies. Conservatives portrayed Bremby as caving under the weight of special interest groups and the governor's office.

The thing about Bremby, said John Nalbandian, former Lawrence mayor and chairman of Kansas University's public administration department, is that underneath the easygoing nature and the feathers that never seem to ruffle is a mind of its own.

"I think Rod is convinced this is the right thing to do," Nalbandian said. "And once he is convinced this is the right thing to do, he has a strong mind."

Since the decision, Bremby has shied away from the media and the subject of coal-fired plants. Even the initial announcement was videotaped and there was no news conference.

He declined to be interviewed for this story, but answered a series of questions posed by the Journal-World via e-mail.

While Bremby would disagree with the characterization that his recent decision has made him a polarizing figure in Kansas, he concedes that none of his other decisions have triggered such a response.

"I was not surprised by the reaction, due to the importance of the issue, but I have been surprised by the negative responses directed toward me personally by people I respect," he wrote.

The communicator

Former Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen said Bremby was one of his best hires during his 16-year tenure.

Bremby came to Lawrence in 1990 after spending seven years inside City Hall in Fort Worth, Texas.

He started as a management intern and eventually became an assistant in the city manager's office, drafting policy, working on the budget and handling residents' complaints.

"He had the big city experience, which is much more political than it is in a place like Lawrence," Nalbandian said. "So in some ways the politics (here) would have been a lot simpler for him to understand and to manage."

Bremby cites the 1993 floods as one of his more memorable lessons in Lawrence, when he learned the importance of communicating frequently, honestly and directly during a moment of crisis.

The 1993 floods weren't the only time that Bremby was thrust in front of unfriendly crowds. From neighborhood meetings to police and firefighter labor negotiations, Wildgen said Bremby was even-keeled and unflustered by pointed questions.

"I always felt I could send him out to just about any overwhelmed citizen or group that had concerns or issues and he could deal with them unemotionally, matter of fact, give them straight answers," Wildgen said.

Lawrence City Manager Dave Corliss, who started at the city about the same time as Bremby working as a management analyst, credits his former boss for setting up a multiple-year public safety plan that prescribed staffing levels and facility upgrades. It's still in use today.

From the river to the Hill

Another distinguishing mark on Bremby's 10 years at City Hall was his work with nonprofits.

At times, like during budget hearings, Nalbandian said, Bremby could cross the line from neutral staffer to advocate. He also was seen as a beacon in the minority community.

"As far as I know, he was the first African-American to have that high level of a job with the city, so everyone wanted a piece of him," Nalbandian said. "He had to deal with the idea that the African-American community, the minority community, saw him as this access to city government."

While serving as assistant city manager, Bremby helped kick off The Partnership for Children and Youth Inc., a now-defunct organization that worked to broker relationships within the community.

Bremby's work caught the attention of Stephen Fawcett, the director of KU Work Group for Community Health and Development.

At a downtown coffee shop and during a period when Bremby was soul-searching where his career would take him next, Fawcett said he offered him a job as assistant director.

Fawcett liked Bremby's vision, his ability to listen and the toughness underneath the soft-spoken voice.

Bremby wrote that he saw the job as an opportunity to see how social connectedness could affect the health of communities and a chance to earn a Ph.D.

In his three years at KU, Bremby worked on initiatives to match children with caring adults and bring youths and health programs to neighborhoods in Kansas City.

These programs, Fawcett said, renewed Bremby's faith that communities could be changed.

"He had prior experiences that left him a little doubtful about that," Fawcett said.

Alabama roots

Bremby is an introvert. He describes himself as purposeful, thankful and calm. He lists Willie Mays among his role models and his favorite food as sushi. He's a father of four and married to Lawrence native Dr. April Harris.

Bremby's mother describes her son as laid-back. As an adult, he is still that "humble child, sweet loving and caring," Margaret Johnson said.

Bremby was born in the small, rural Alabama town of Eufaula. In 1967, he and another classmate became the first black students to integrate into Eufaula's public school system.

Johnson's husband was a military policeman and the family moved around - to Arizona, the Netherlands and Germany.

In an e-mail, Bremby wrote that during his childhood, he saw the extremes of social inclusion and civic engagement. In many ways he felt more at home in Europe than he did in Alabama. Growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s, Bremby wrote that he was exposed - mostly through overheard conversations - to bombings, kidnappings, assaults and murders.

"Personally experiencing segregation in public accommodations and the process of integration helped me develop a resilience that has proven more valuable the older I get," Bremby wrote. "These experiences, taken together, helped shape my view of what is possible in a civil society."

Johnson said her son would finish his work early in elementary school and then walk around the classroom.

"It was always, if Johnny could make an A, (her son) could make an A plus," she said.

Bremby went to high school in Leavenworth, where he was elected senior class president, became a Junior ROTC member and played baseball.

But it was graduating from KU in 1982 that made his mother the proudest. He was the first in her family to do so.

Center of the storm

As newly elected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius took office, Nalbandian was among those who got a call from a confidant looking for Kansans to fill the cabinet. In the course of the conversation, Bremby's name came up.

Still, the announcement that Bremby was to be secretary of KDHE was unexpected, Nalbandian said. It's a position that comes with a more than $200 million budget and a regulatory reach that extends from day care centers to the cleanup of chemical spills. Last year, Bremby was paid $105,000.

"That is a pretty responsible job, so I am not going to say I wasn't surprise, but I can sure see the reasons and how he could do a good job," Nalbandian said.

State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she appreciates the tone Bremby has set as secretary, especially his plea for Kansans to take responsibility for their health.

Not everyone is happy. State Senate President Steve Morris and House Majority Leader Melvin Neufeld are among those who objected to Bremby's ruling against Sunflower Electric.

"I do think in the coal fire decision, the decision he made was probably outside of his authority," Morris said.

Even if it was a move Morris disapproved of, he said Bremby was gracious in its handling, calling before the announcement. Morris said Bremby told him it was one of the hardest phone calls he ever had to make.

"He knew it was a very tough decision and it would be controversial," Morris said. "He knew I was supportive of (coal-fired plant) and it was in my backyard."

Overall, Morris said Bremby has done a good job as secretary. That being said, Morris wants to look at how long it takes to process permits through the department.

Bremby made another controversial move last spring when he and his wife filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy.

"The majority of Americans who file for bankruptcy do so due to medical reasons, and the second reason is because of loss of job due to medical reasons, so we find ourselves as typical Americans who file for protection under the bankruptcy laws of the U.S," he told the Journal-World in April.

Morris said the bankruptcy is a personal matter and not a factor in Bremby's job.

Despite the decision, Bremby writes that his leadership of the agency hasn't changed. And he still mediates and communicates.

"I would like for us to be able to make the transition to a great service organization," Bremby said.

Francisco has known Bremby since his days at City Hall. She and the Brembys both lived on Ohio Street. She would pass his young children playing in the front yard on her way downtown.

And this fall, she was among those who wondered what her old neighbor's decision would be on the coal-fired plants.

"Here's the deal: we are governors of ourselves," Francisco said. "It is going to be our friends and neighbors and people that we know, each of us making those decisions."


standuporget 10 years, 5 months ago

merrill (Anonymous) says:

Stimulating the economy will require major steps such as ending the Iraq imvasion/occupation: Stop electing the PNAC Republican war machine to elected positions : a. b. c. d. all top republican candidates including the house and senate subscribe to this e. the DLC Clinton /Lieberman types subscribe to this f. the world has no respect for the republican PNAC war machine stop the mideast invasion - bring all the troops home. Taxpayers cannot afford this stupidity a significant pay increase to the middle class - this inceases spending and they pay the bills Demand National Health Insurance - this will save tons of money for 95% of citizens Increase expenditures in public education and Vocational-Technical Education Stop bailing out Wall Street - That money would be better spent on National Health Insurance or Vocational-Tech education

hornhunter 10 years, 5 months ago

Brembys' early days photo looks like Eddie Murhpy in a Jackson 5 suit, so that could mean he is a joker that can't sing, but he can lipsync

Centerville 10 years, 5 months ago

So now the LJW is publishing stories straight from Sebelius' p.r. firm. This is a pathetic story about a political hack.

Steve Jacob 10 years, 5 months ago

Well also, when he made the decision, Sebelius was looking over his shoulder, maybe even whispering in his ear.

ASBESTOS 10 years, 5 months ago

Bremby is a two bit loser and should NEVER have been appointed to the KDHE.

I wonder why Sec. Bremby does not put the same level of concern on his Underground Storage Tank group, or his Asbestos Group that is allowing 391 buildings in Coffeyville to be flattened without asbestos inspections and without having the asbestos removed?

Why is that Sec. Bremby? Yes, we know that the Coffeyville City Manager stated that the buildings are "structurally unsound", but they are NOT indanger of immenent collapse. ANd yes it is the responsibility of KDHE and EPA Region 7 to check and make sure the "structurally unsound" buildings are actually in that conditions. There are many case histories of violations cited upon this very thing.

WHY THE CHANGE with asbestos ROD? Asbestos and people dying from it is not sexy enough?

During this flood that Sec. Bremby is remembering so well, in that time ALL the houses were asbestos inspected and ALL had asbestos remeoved.

Seems as if Sec. Bremby is pretty selective about his "pollutants", Asbestos the first regulated material by EPA, no problem, CO2 not a carcinogen and not a problem.


For the GW creeps, check out the plastic pollution in the ocean. 6 pounds of plastic for every pound of zooplankton in the Pacific current locations!!!! If we cannot control plastics in the ocean and it is this bad, we will NEVER address and correct the emissions for GLOBAL issues.

Oracle_of_Rhode 10 years, 5 months ago

I for one appreciate Sec. Bremby's courageous stand against polluting coal-fired power plants -- thanks for fighting to keep Kansas' air clean!

toefungus 10 years, 5 months ago

How many times has doing nothing been interpreted as great decision making? Reminds me of Peter Seller's Being There movie. I like to watch.

LAWRENCE54 10 years, 5 months ago

"Decision Maker" makes me want to puke. we entrust him with very important decisions and a $200MM+ budget and he can't manage his own personal finances and has to run for Bankruptcy protection. Not your typical American family. Please.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 years, 5 months ago

If you'll notice, without going into details, he said he filed bankruptcy protection, because of illness and loss of income. I think I heard his wife lost her job, because of an illness. Like many families that rely on two incomes, an illness can wipe out a family's finances. I'm glad Lawrence54 has lots of money save up, so that if he/she or his/her spouse becomes ill, they can still manage, but not everyone has that luxury.

simplyamazed 10 years, 5 months ago

Rod is a wonderful person. I worked for the City while he was there and went to him when no one else would listen. He would make decisions based on the facts and what was right or wrong and not let the egos of fellow superiors sway his decisions. I would still be employed with the City if Rod was still there. He did not let fabrications of distorted facts rule his ethics. He would always look at both sides of the issue and make an honest decision based on truth and not what a manager or director wanted the outcome to be just because they had the power. He was justly fair, honest and had the integrity that most will never have or ever have the opportunity to be accquainted with in their lifetime. I am sorry to hear that he ran into hardships in his personal life but on the other hand it has probably made him a better person, if that was possible. Thanks Rod for all that you have done for Kansas and the people who live here. And foremost, thanks for what you have done for me.

bondmen 10 years, 5 months ago

Dependence on foreign sources for American energy is a calculated risk which is vastly under appreciated by the earth worshiping greens. When supply disruptions arrive they'll be the first to blame others for their errors, just wait and see. The Great Global Warming Swindle, a scientific analysis and proper interpretation of historic weather data, is in DVD and very much worthy of your time and money!

Ralph Reed 10 years, 5 months ago

Good God. A man makes a decision, notifies parties concerned prior to announcing the decision and then stands by his decision.

Now, instead of attacking his decision and why he made the decision, his personal and family life is attacked, he's called a puppet and he is generally denegrated. Well done.

ASBESTOS (Anonymous) writes:

"Bremby is a two bit loser and should NEVER have been appointed to the KDHE."

This is irrelevent as it's an ad hominem attack.

ASBESTOS (Anonymous) writes:

"I wonder why Sec. Bremby does not put the same level of concern on his Underground Storage Tank group, or his Asbestos Group that is allowing 391 buildings in Coffeyville to be flattened without asbestos inspections and without having the asbestos removed?

Why is that Sec. Bremby? Yes, we know that the Coffeyville City Manager stated that the buildings are "structurally unsound", but they are NOT indanger of immenent collapse. ANd yes it is the responsibility of KDHE and EPA Region 7 to check and make sure the "structurally unsound" buildings are actually in that conditions. There are many case histories of violations cited upon this very thing."

If this is so, then please provide some of the case histories or at least links to them.

As I remember, the coal-fired plants would provide little added benefit to the state and a great deal to the energy company. Most, if not all of the electricity was to be sold to Colorado. The influx of jobs would last only so long as the time it took to build the plants, then a lot of people would be laid off because it doesn't take as many people to run a plant as to build it. Prevailing winds would carry the polution across Kansas, Southern Nebraska, Northeastern Missouri and places further down range. (This has all been cussed and discussed in other articles.)

About the article itself. I also question Metz's motives in writing the article. It's as if she put things in the article specifically designed to draw fire. Well done Christine.

I'm me. Who are you behind your hood of anonymity?

Wilbur_Nether 10 years, 5 months ago

Well, whatever weaknesses Sec. Bremby has, I trust him more than our Legislature....

ASBESTOS 10 years, 5 months ago

RalphieReed posted:

"If this is so, then please provide some of the case histories or at least links to them."

Homey don't play that game anymore. Pukes like you request the information, and then when provided, you don't believe it anyway. You are a koolaide drinker and cannot think for yourself.

I really don't care what you think.

IF YOU are so concerned. just look up, and look for the "FYXX Enforcement accomplishments" reports. Over the years there must be about 15 of these. IN them are about 200 asbestos regulartory enforcement actions. YOU go through them, I already know.

You have to be consistent in "Environmental Concerns" and ENFORCEMENT is a biggie. Pass all the laws you want, if not enforced they don't mean squat.

As asbestos regulation goes, so goes the environmental enforcement regulations.

pace 10 years, 5 months ago

Bremby was the most practical and straightforward person I met at City Hall. He has some tough time ahead, I am sure he will meet it with grace and courage.

lounger 10 years, 5 months ago

I think his desision on the coal fired plants is heroic! Smart man in the here and now. As for slamming him -who is lining your pockets people! How can you slam a man who made this desision that will keep YOUR children healthier as well as ours.

homebuilding 10 years, 5 months ago

I'd like MORE from journalism!

I want it to be reported that burning natural gas for electrical generation creates water vapor, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide, just like burning coal or wood, or diesel fuel and gasoline.
I want it to be reported that the soot from coal and coke burning in the "glory days" of the early Industrial Revolution has been dramatically reduced--park your car downstream from Holcomb--you'll have a difficult time finding any particulates. I'd like it to be reported that ultra-super critical coal plants can extract far more electrical energy from coal that was possible just ten years ago I want it to be reported that Bremby's decision was FOR natural gas--voting the other way was for coal--and both have been competing in full page ad wars in major papers in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. I'd like reporting on the likelihood that making electricity in a large installation allows upgrades in pollution controls--it's just NOT possible to clean up a million autos and make them more efficient with one upgrade/installation. I'd like reporting on this "victory" which will create much more demand for natural gas--and the home heating price is going to go up--and stay up. I'd like it to be reported that the abandonment of railroads is also a contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas increases, as trucks burn far more fuel per ton/mile than trains and the CO2 lost in making cement for concrete roadways is generally overlooked, as well. I'd like Bremby to decide that suburban sprawl is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses, of all, but he has no legal authority to make us walk more and brake less, thus reducing the rubber powder and brake dust lifted skyward.
I'd like to suggest that he does not have the authority to stop additional coal plants under current law and I wish lawmakers well in overturning his decision. Then we can get about the business of cleaning up the water and the air--and I'm certain that it will be better for the fish and the birds--and the gaseous balances will be improved


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