DOE takes smart route regarding HAB's structure

Federal bureaucracies don't have a reputation for nimbleness. They're better known for correcting course with all the speed and agility of a glacier.

That's all the more reason to be impressed with the Department of Energy's decision not to impose term limits for the Hanford Advisory Board.

Just a few short weeks ago, DOE appeared to be locked onto another path despite serious flaws in its plan for the board.

DOE officials in Washington, D.C., were pushing for changes to the board structure, including term limits for some seats.

For HAB, it must have felt like deja vu. The Energy Department has tried to impose changes on the board on at least two other occasions.

The suspicion of some members -- which we shared -- was that some DOE officials were attempting to create a more compliant board.

The official reasoning was that the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which covers all DOE environmental management advisory boards, requires term limits.

But the Hanford Advisory Board has been around longer than the act, and its bylaws are exempt from the legislation.

The reference to a regulation that doesn't apply was hardly convincing.

"No one can beat a Washington bureaucrat for putting policy above substance," we wrote when this latest attempt to muck around with HAB's makeup first surfaced.

We're happy to eat our words.

David Huizenga, senior adviser for DOE's Office of Environmental Management, recently wrote to HAB, explaining that instead of forcing changes, DOE will work with the Hanford Advisory Board's Executive Issues Committee to find mutually acceptable ways of addressing DOE's concerns.

That's clearly the best way to proceed. HAB was designed to provide an independent voice representing a diverse cross section of Northwest interests. Dictating significant procedural changes would have only weakened HAB's independence.

Its 32 members include Native American tribes, civic groups, local governments, unions, universities, Hanford workers and the public-at-large -- a combination that guarantees that progress comes in fits and starts.

But the board also has proved to be remarkably effective in fulfilling its mandate to provide advice on Hanford cleanup from the public's perspective.

The Hanford Advisory Board "is very unique and DOE values HAB," Dana Bryson, the deputy designated federal officer for the board, told Herald senior writer Annette Cary.

"We need to assure HAB is maintained as a productive, functioning organization," he said.

That can't happen without HAB's active participation in defining any changes in the way it's structured. The heavy-handed route DOE started on would have ensured the opposite.

DOE's move to a cooperative course is commendable.