Gillespie, of Marion, to be assistant secretary for the environment

Press release from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, shared Jan. 9:

RALEIGH – N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John E. Skvarla, III on Wednesday announced his selection of a new leadership team for the agency and a mission to make DENR more customer service friendly.

Skvarla, a Raleigh businessman, accepted Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointment to lead the state agency and started work Monday.

“In keeping with Gov. McCrory’s vision, I want DENR to become an agency that sticks to its core mission of protecting the environment but becomes more customer service-oriented,” Skvarla said. “There’s no reason why we can’t protect our air, water and land while we also help the business community grow and expand.”

Skvarla outlined three principles he plans to institute in a mission statement he sent to department employees Tuesday. In addition to better customer service, he said the agency should be aware of the economic costs and benefits integral to its mission, and should make decisions concerning the environment with a respect and understanding for a diverse set of scientific viewpoints.

Skvarla comes to DENR after a successful career in business. He most recently served as chief operating officer for Restoration Systems, an environmental mitigation firm based in Raleigh that helps improve and restore wetlands and waterways. His past environmental experience also includes his work as chairman with Wilkinson Hi-Rise, a world leader in manufacturing new products such as waste management and automated recycling systems. Skvarla previously served as chief operating officer for The Aviation Group, Inc., a company that emerged as the world’s largest all-cargo airline during his tenure. He also has been managing director of an investment banking office in Raleigh and owner of a Sandhills golf course community. An attorney, Skvarla in 1978 founded and served as senior partner to the Raleigh-based Skvarla, Wyrick and Robbins law firm, where he specialized in corporate and tax matters, as well as public and private capital formations.

To help execute the new mission, Skvarla announced on Wednesday that the agency’s leadership team will be:

  • Mitch Gillespie, who was named assistant secretary for the environment. Gillespie, a small business owner, recently resigned as a member of the state House of Representatives, where he has represented Avery, McDowell and Mitchell counties since 1999. As a legislator, he served as a leading state budget writer and steered the legislation passed in 2012 that launched a modern regulatory program to manage oil and gas exploration in North Carolina. Gillespie also served as chairman of the state Environmental Review Commission, which studies and recommends actions related to protecting the environment and public health. Gillespie will oversee development of major policy initiatives for programs with responsibilities such as permitting of discharges to surface waters; issuance of air emissions permits; implementation of grant programs for wastewater and permitting of coastal development; and regulation of animal operations.
  • Brad Ives, who was named assistant secretary for natural resources. Ives is currently the vice president of corporate development at Semprius, a manufacturer of solar panels in Research Triangle Park. Ives has experience in landfill gas, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sectors as well as the timber industry. Ives plans to start in his new role with DENR soon. He will oversee the divisions of Marine Fisheries and Parks and Recreation as well as the Office of Conservation, Planning and Community Affairs, the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, the state aquariums and the N.C. Zoo.
  • Neal Robbins, who was named director of legislative and intergovernmental affairs. Before joining DENR, Robbins was an attorney with Robbins Law in Winston-Salem, where his practice focused on debtor-creditor issues. Prior to   that, Robbins worked as a chemical engineer for the synthetic fiber industry. Robbins will work with members of the General Assembly on environmental legislation and constituent issues, and coordinate DENR’s periodic reports to the General Assembly.
  • Lacy Presnell, who was named general counsel. Presnell, an attorney with Burns, Day & Presnell in Raleigh, has extensive civil trial and appellate experience in a broad range of complex legal actions, including serving as lead counsel in serious injury and death cases, business disputes, and contract and estate disputes. His trial experience includes more than 70 cases tried to a verdict. Presnell will be the first point of contact in litigation, acting as the service agent for all contested cases, tort claims and other lawsuits involving the department. He will supervise the rule-making coordination process and provide advice on various issues such as new policy initiatives, legislation, contracts, conflicts of interest and dispute resolution.
  • Mary Penny Thompson, who was named acting assistant secretary for administration. Thompson has served as DENR’s chief deputy secretary since May 2012 and had previously served as the department’s general counsel and assistant secretary for information systems. Prior to joining DENR, Thompson served for eight years in the Attorney General’s Office, where she litigated and provided legal advice on coastal, water and land issues and undertook special projects including an inter-government exchange to serve as assistant general counsel for the department. In her new role, she will manage the department’s administrative divisions, including Human Resources; Information Technology Services; Purchase and Services; and Budget, Planning and Analysis.

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Angie Newsome was the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at

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