Weather Service moves to fire official who criticized budget cuts in Post interview
By Lisa Rein,
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. But the Weather Service’s acting director said there was no such connection and, in his termination letter, cited Proenza for the transfer under his watch of $528,000 between accounts last year without authorization.
Proenza, 68, led the Weather Service’s Southern region and ends a 50-year career at the agency that included a controversial tenure as the head of Miami’s National Hurricane Center, one of meteorology’s most visible jobs.
Frequently outspoken about what he perceived as management missteps, he planned to limit radars to cover a $100,000 shortfall in his second-quarter budget.
He acknowledged in a front-page article Monday that the move could pose a danger to the public if an undetected storm passed through.
“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.
The stated reason for his firing dates to June 2012, when the agency was embroiled in a controversy over a widespread practice used by financial managers at Washington headquarters to deal with persistent deficits. Agency leaders siphoned money allocated for equipment, technology upgrades and other programs to fund salaries and day-to-day operations without permission from Congress. The practice, called “reprogramming,” has since stopped.
The issue forced the retirement of the Weather Service’s director and chief financial officer. Like other managers, Proenza’s budget staff had moved $528,000 from a local forecasting account to pay for radars, a decision authorized by officials in Washington, e-mails show.
Moving money between funds to address budget shortfalls “was done routinely” throughout the Weather Service “because our budget is barely adequate,” he said. “No one ever did it with the intent to get advantage or profit from it.”
Proenza and his supporters said his real infraction was his news media comments.
“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.”
He said of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service’s parent agency: “Nothing goes out [to the public] that’s negative for NOAA.”
He was put on paid leave for 30 days, the standard termination practice for federal employees.
After The Post article, the Weather Service notified Proenza’s staff that the money he needed for radar operations would be available, he said. “They got word from Washington; the money’s there.”
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.”
Proenza was an open ally of the union, which honored him in December with a proclamation recognizing his “tireless efforts” to secure resources for the Weather Service.
“To him, the mission was what he fought for,” Sobien said. “If he got in trouble for it, he got in trouble.”
Proenza had also gone public with concerns about what he considered to be waste and mismanagement. He was ousted as director of the Hurricane Center in 2007 after almost half of his staff signed a statement urging his dismissal, saying his criticisms of an aging weather satellite were exaggerated. Proenza had said the satellite was threatening accurate hurricane forecasts, and his attorneys said NOAA denied him protections as a whistleblower.
Furgione, in an interview, said “there is no connection whatsoever” between Proenza’s firing and his media comments, adding that “it’s unfortunate” he was a casualty of the reprogramming controversy.
She added that the change in leadership in one of the Weather Service’s busiest regions would not result in “any interruption in service.”
“Our forecast and warnings will still be available in the manner folks have expected in the past,” she said.
Proenza has retained a lawyer and plans to appeal the termination.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.