Jeff Wennberg claims he has retired. You can’t blame his colleagues for being skeptical.
A glance at his resume suggests why. He’s spent 35 years in environmental administration and public service, including serving as mayor of Rutland, commissioner of Vermont’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation, board member and president of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, chair of the environmental policy committee for the National League of Cities, chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee for US EPA, and served on many other government and non-profit organizations, and, until recently, as commissioner of Rutland’s Department of Public Works.
Jeff is a big-picture thinker who has a wonk’s fascination with technology. He operates with a refreshingly independent take on policy matters spiced with a sardonic sense of humor. And, fortunately for GMWEA, a long and deep commitment to water quality. (He’s been a member of GMWEA’s Government Affairs Committee for many years.)
Q: You earned a BS in Physics and an MS in Industrial Management. Why the switch to public service?
JW: When I served on the Rutland’s School Board, I discovered that public service gave me a greater sense of personal satisfaction than my private sector job. When it came time to move on, I sought out public sector work and landed a job with Congressman Jim Jeffords. Jeffords was a mentor of mine, along with Governor Richard Snelling and Jack Daley, mayor of Rutland.
Public servants can take pride in their work, knowing that they are making a real difference in peoples’ lives. Just look at our drinking water and wastewater personnel – these people take their jobs seriously and have enormous pride in the work they do. . . we’re lucky to have so many such motived, devoted people here in Vermont.
Q: And yet they’re largely unappreciated! People expect water to flow when they turn the tap, toilets to empty when they flush. They don’t recognize the infrastructure and human expertise and devotion that makes it happen!
JW: Exactly. But I say to my guys that when the people you serve DON’T notice – THAT is the definition of success. . . As DEC commissioner, and in Rutland, I always saw part of my job was to sing their praises – to communicate the degree of devotion and professionalism these people possess.
Q: Which you do very effectively. You show an impressive ability to convey complex, often technical ideas in accessible ways. Is that a native gift of gab, or a learned skill?
JW: It’s crucial to be able to translate to non-technical people the heart of a complex idea. For example, as commissioner of Vermont DEC, my very first invitation for a public speech was at a GMWEA conference. I wanted let them know where I was coming from as the new commissioner without getting into policy minutia.
Q: So, what did you tell those GMWEA members?
JW: I was very clear about where the rubber meets the road. I was already known for being outspoken in criticism of regulators, and I shared with the GMWEA audience what I said to the DEC staff: “When does environmental protection take place? It’s not when laws are made, it’s not when money is allocated, it’s not when rules are written or when the regulators are hired — not one pollutant is removed. The environment is protected when an alarm goes off at the wastewater treatment plant at 2 a.m. and the operator has the knowledge, the resources, and the authority to do the right thing.”
“The environment is protected when an alarm goes off at the wastewater treatment plant at 2 a.m. and the operator has the knowledge, the resources, and the authority to do the right thing.”
Q: You seem to be willing to be a maverick in policy perspectives — to take some heat if needed.
JW: I tell people, You gotta be willing to wear a ‘kick me’ sign, and wear it proudly! Good ideas often take heat if they challenge the status quo. I am willing to be someone who inflames if that’s what’s needed. Sometimes being a lightning rod is the way to get attention, which is always necessary if you want to change minds.
Q: One example might be your view on combined sewer systems. Rutland has had its problems with CSOs, yet you’re willing to tack against the prevailing winds of sentiment on that.
JW: Well, despite overflows, combined systems are demonstrably better than systems lacking stormwater treatment. Combined systems take in stormwater all year, removing pollutants every day EXCEPT for the comparatively brief overflows.
The Rutland plant processes about 1.7 billion gallons a year – about 650 to 750 million of which are stormwater. We showed that despite overflows, the net phosphorous removal was enormous. In 2017, 3 million gallons of wastewater bypassed the system during CSOs, allowing 73 pounds of phosphorus to be released. But 1,278 pounds were removed that same year by processing stormwater through the treatment plant. We need to look at the whole picture if we are going to successfully protect water quality.
So what’s next for Jeff Wennberg?
Jeff says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family – his wife of 43 years, two adult children, and three grand-kids. He still serves on GMWEA’s Government Affairs Committee and the Vt. Citizens Advisory Committee on the Lake Champlain’s Future. He’ll probably do some consulting – “but only if it’s fun.” And he plans to do some writing: “As everybody knows, I love to tell stories.” Like Abe Lincoln, he has a penchant for illustrating his thoughts with one-liner sayings or humorous stories — so he’s working on a collection of instructive anecdotes that offer advice based on his long professional experience.
“I say to my guys that when the people you serve DON’T notice — THAT is the definition of success.”
Editor: Jeff, thanks so much for your good work over so many years. Sorry, but people DID notice — and yet you still meet the definition of success. Best wishes in all your future endeavors!