Does Virginia really have a State Climatologist?

Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch has been quite taken with the story of UVa Professor and State Climatologist Patrick Michaels taking money from utilities. He raised some interesting questions in his comments on the story, and ended up spending a great bit of time investigating the history of Michaels ostensible position as State Climatologist. Funny thing — it sure looks like he is not, in fact, State Climatologist. What follows is Kevin’s article on the topic, the first in a two-part series.

Does Virginia really have a State Climatologist?
And if not, why are taxpayers spending $91,530 a year for the Virginia State Climatologist Office?

As reported in the Progress a couple of days ago, there is a difference of opinion between the University of Virginia and the Governor’s office as to who is responsible for the Office of the Climatologist. According to the Governors office, the Climatologist is not a gubernatorial appointee, while according to the University the position of State Climatologist is a gubernatorial appointment.

Patrick Michaels This matters of course, because using his Office of State Climatologist, Dr. Patrick Michaels publishes some rather controversial opinions on global warming and associated phenomena – opinions that seem to be very closely related to those he promotes as a private consultant to coal and power industries. This would appear to be a conflict of interest, however at this time, neither the University or Governor’s office will claim responsibility for Dr. Michaels’ actions as State Climatologist. Thus the determination of whether or not a conflict exists is left to editorial page writers.

The lack of oversight by the Governors office or University raises a much more serious question: If the State Climatologist is accountable to neither, than who appointed him and by whose authority has his office been drawing approximately $2.5 million dollars of taxpayer money over the past 26 years?

Having reviewed the documentation available thus far, I believe that the Governor’s office is right – the Climatologist is not a gubernatorial appointee. He was in fact given a letter of appointment by Governor Dalton in 1980, but his appointment does not appear to have been legitimate, nor was it ever recorded with the Secretary of the Commonwealth or with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).

To understand how this could have happened, a bit of history is required: The position of the State Climatologist was originally a Federal appointment, housed at Virginia Tech. In 1973, the Federal government discontinued the program. Shortly thereafter, most States picked up the responsibility for the office as a State function. Typically the position is a Gubernatorial appointment, filled by either an employee of a State agency or staff member of a State-supported University.

In 1977, Virginia was still without a State Climatologist and the University of Virginia petitioned Governor Godwin to house the Office at UVA. On August 10, 1977, Governor Godwin appointed Dr. Bruce Hayden as “acting” State Climatologist. The designation of “acting” is significant, because at the time there was no statutory authority in Virginia State code to create the office. Governor Godwin stated in his appointment letter

I believe we need to consider carefully the creation of a permanent state climatological office. For the interim, I would like to ask that you accept my designation as the acting state climatologist.

I am not sure of the exact authority of the appointment, but believe that Governor Godwin may have relied on (a somewhat liberal interpretation of) Virginia Code Sec 2.2-605 to fill the position as “acting” since there had been a previous appointment which was left vacant when the office was moved to UVA.

At that point (August 10, 1977), Governor Godwin was near the end of his term. And for whatever reason, it is apparent that the position of State Climatologist was never created by an act of the General Assembly or otherwise.

In 1980, the University recruited the current Climatologist, Dr. Patrick Michaels, to become the permanent State Climatologist. On July 8th, 1980, Governor Dalton sent a letter of appointment to Dr. Michaels in which he states: “It is my pleasure to appoint you as State Climatologist.” Note there is no “acting” designation. This is the letter for which the University bases its claim that the Climatologist is a Gubernatorial appointment. However, no action establishing the State Climatologist Office had been taken (nor has such action been taken since). Thus I do not believe Governor Dalton had the statutory authority to issue the letter. Furthermore, only the University seems to have had a copy of this letter. There was no copy at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, nor was there any copy in Governor Dalton’s personal records of appointments and memos. Unlike the previous appointment, no copy of the letter was filed with NCDC. The result of this is that even if there were some possible legitimate basis for the letter of appointment, no Governor since Dalton has had any inkling that there ever was an appointment, and thus there has been no reappointment of the State Climatologist in 26 years.

When I asked Dr. Michaels how he became the State Climatologist in an email, he did not mention the letter of appointment from Dalton – instead he responded:

State Climatologists are appointed via a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Climatic Data Center, the relevant University, and the Executive Branch. It’s got to be around somewhere.

However, thus far no one, including Dr. Michaels has been able to produce such a MOU, which would have been dated 1980. The Governor’s office and NCDC don’t have it. There is no copy in Governor Dalton’s papers at the State Library. The only entity that could possibly have it is the University. If they do have such a document, it seems a little strange that they would insist that the Climatologist is a Gubernatorial appointment on the basis of Governor Dalton’s 1980 letter.

I have not heard back from Dr. Michaels since the first of August, although I have tried to contact him. This is unfortunate, because he may be able to answer a few questions to help clear things up. For example: If there is indeed such a MOU as he claims, why can no one, including himself, produce a copy? Is there anyone besides himself who can vouch for its existence? What exactly did it say? Did it void the letter of appointment by Dalton? If so, why does the University still claim that Dr. Michaels is a Gubernatorial appointment? If not, why does Dr. Michaels suppose he hasn’t been re-appointed for the past 26 years? Did the MOU make him a judge with a lifetime appointment? If no one else besides Dr. Michaels can vouch for the existence of the MOU, who else besides myself has been told that the MOU was the basis of Dr. Michaels’ appointment?

So here we are, almost two weeks after Harry asked how the Climatologist is appointed and we still have more questions than answers — although the questions are now quite a bit more serious.

Harry also seems to have excellent intuition, because he also asked two weeks ago “Did George Allen have anything to do with Patrick Michaels getting the gig?” And while I don’t know that Allen had anything to do with Dr. Michaels getting the gig, he certainly seems to have had quite a bit to do with him keeping the gig, as was reported in the recent Progress article. The details of these “interventions” are a whole other story — one which is probably best left to the professionals.