“Penny-wise and pound-foolish”: Weather Service regional director fired after talking about harmful budget cuts

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Within days of National Weather Service Southern region director William Proenza going public in the Washington Post about budget cuts that he says threaten Weather Service capabilities, NWS acting head Laura Furgione moved to fire him after a lifetime of public service, while giving a phony-sounding justification. Career federal officials are muzzled from truth-telling about budgets.

Here’s an excerpt from the article in today’s Washington Post: Weather Service moves to fire official who criticized budget cuts in Post interview (Feb. 1 online; Feb. 2 print edition):

The National Weather Service moved to fire one of its top managers Friday, four days after he was quoted in an article in The Washington Post lamenting that budget cuts and the threat of further reductions in March were forcing him to pare back a public safety service.

William Proenza and his supporters called his firing a retaliation for going public with a plan to shut down radars on sunny days in the South to save power costs. …

“It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to try and save a few dollars if you’re going to degrade our capacity to deliver our mission,” Proenza told The Post, describing a less-than-optimal cost-cutting strategy as the financially challenged Weather Service braces for $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that may occur across the government on March 1.

On Friday, acting Weather Service Director Laura Furgione flew to Fort Worth, Tex., to deliver Proenza’s notice of termination. …

“To all of a sudden jump on me out of the clear blue sky and do this,” Proenza said Friday after he was led out of his office, “the timing is certainly suspicious.” …

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said: “It’s just far too convenient that they would pick now to fire what is arguably one of the best managers in the National Weather Service. They clearly did it because they don’t like the comments he’s making.” …

Here’s the article that ran in the Post on Monday, January 28: Threat of automatic cuts costly to federal agencies (Jan.27 online; Jan. 28 print edition)

In the political culture of the federal government, for career officials to talk publicly about budgets that are still under consideration, or to do anything other than to talk about how well they are managing within whatever budget they are given, can be a firing offense. In particular, it can be a capital offense, so to speak, in Washington, DC. to speak critically to the public about the implications of Administration and congressional budget cuts to public services. With rare exceptions like Proenza, who are willing to court trouble with their ‘bosses’, career feds stay muzzled by the chilling prospect of retribution if they give voice to what they know about the damage done when vital programs and budgets are cut back. Their fellow citizens are left without the insights of skilled professionals who have an inside understanding of budget actions by elected officials. The public ‘silence of the feds’ is, to me, one of the striking phenomena of working in the nation’s capital.

Proenza is no stranger to controversy. In 2007 he was forced out of his position as head of the NWS National Hurricane Center after he raised issues about the potential threat to hurricane forecasting capabilities with his agency’s failure to expedite a replacement for an aging satellite. We did several posts on it at the time:

NOAA bureaucrats attempt to muzzle National Hurricane Center director (June 28, 2007)

Hurricane Center Director Proenza charges NOAA violated Whistleblower Protection Act (August 3, 2007)

House Science Chairmen suggest NOAA is railroading Hurricane Center Director Bill Proenza (August 7, 2007)

There were multiple sides to that story back in 2007 (there’s a concise summary here), and when all was said and done we hesitated to take a hard-over position on it.

We’ll be watching this current case with great interest. If Proenza mounts a legal challenge to his firing, it would subject his agency head’s decision to critical scrutiny and could raise the issue of federal officials’ right to speak freely about budget issues with the public.

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One Response to “Penny-wise and pound-foolish”: Weather Service regional director fired after talking about harmful budget cuts

  1. Tony O'Brien says:

    It may be just my imagination, but the weather does seem to change faster these days. So lets not even get that couple of hours warning that can save lives if not property: very dangerous attitude.

    So glad I am not a forecaster.

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