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Asked to serve

Oct. 18, 2019 – TCEQ’s newest commissioner a dedicated public servant, familiar face

New TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka sits in on his first meeting of the agency’s commission on Sept. 27. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Janecka to the three-member commission on Sept. 16.
New TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka sits in on his first meeting of the agency’s commission on Sept. 27. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Janecka to the three-member commission on Sept. 16.

By Andrew Keese, TCEQ Media Relations

Sometimes it’s the unexpected challenges and opportunities that have the most impact on us.

Bobby Janecka—who had spent the previous five years as a section manager in TCEQ’s Radioactive Materials Division—served for the last year as a policy adviser to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and as the state’s liaison to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since May.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Abbott selected Janecka on Sept. 16 to serve as a TCEQ commissioner next to incumbents Emily Lindley and Chairman Jon Niermann.

“I never in a million years expected this opportunity would be open to me,” Janecka says. “It is not something that I was angling for. It really was an unexpected honor. I could not have been more elated, more thrilled, to say yes.”

At the time of his selection, Janecka, as one of the governor’s advisers, had been diligently working to be well-versed in a broad range of topics, such as civil courts, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Texas Historical Commission, Texas Facilities Commission, the State Office of Administrative Hearings, Texas Ethics Commission, and state contracting and procurement.

One of the agencies he did not advise on was his old agency, the TCEQ, unless the governor’s adviser on this agency wanted to pick his brain about a particular topic.

When radioactive waste was raised by the Texas Legislature, however, Janecka was called in directly to the governor’s office for advice.

Bobby Janecka (middle), joined by his wife Sarah (left) and son Malcolm, is sworn in as TCEQ’s newest commissioner by its chairman, Jon Niermann (right).

While he is reluctant to speculate as to precisely why the governor chose him to serve as a TCEQ commissioner, Janecka says, “If I had to guess how that decision came about, it was most likely my familiarity with the nuclear issue and getting the opportunity to brief the governor a couple times during the session on radioactive waste issues. It helped put me directly on his radar as someone familiar with some of the issues that TCEQ works on.”

He says there was never a moment of hesitation in saying yes when asked to serve.

“When the leader of our state offers you a dream job, it’s an easy question,” Janecka says. “I’m humbled by the opportunity and appreciate the confidence in me. I want to do well in this role for him, for the Legislature, and for the state of Texas.”

Janecka has a wealth of other governmental experience, including serving as an intergovernmental relations specialist for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and as a legislative aide to two state representatives.

He believes those experiences will serve him well as a TCEQ commissioner.

“I’m excited about engaging with the Legislature,” Janecka says. “I think I can do it well. I want to do the job well. I want to go advocate for this agency, for its many employees, to budget writers and to committee chairs. I feel I have a unique understanding of that legislative world, which I hope can support the mission of our agency.”

The opportunity may have been unexpected, but Janecka is determined to make the most of it.

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Surprising internships

Commissioner Lindley and Chairman Niermann welcome Commissioner Janecka to the dais for the first time.
Commissioner Lindley (left) and Chairman Niermann (right) welcome Commissioner Janecka (middle) to the dais for the first time.

Janecka may be particularly good at reasoning, planning, and seeing the big picture, as his previous jobs illustrate, but even he could not anticipate some outcomes.

He certainly must have been meticulous in selecting internships as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he majored in history and literary studies, and as a graduate student at Texas A&M University, where he worked on his master’s in international studies.

However, even he did not predict that one internship would forever change what he wanted to do with his career, and another would help convince him about what he didn’t want to do with his life (but it probably helped him get noticed by his future wife).

At UT Dallas, he won a prestigious Bill Archer Fellowship from the UT System for an internship in Washington, D.C. That experience convinced him to pick up a minor in government, but it also showed him the value of public service.

“That’s been my career more than anything else: that unplanned government minor,” Janecka says.

The internship convinced him that his career belonged somewhere in government service.

Janecka, who grew up in Victoria, attended UT Dallas because he won a full-ride scholarship courtesy of the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program.

“I was fortunate enough to get in the crosshairs of a very generous scholarship,” Janecka says. “Eugene McDermott’s widow, Margaret McDermott, was a tremendous philanthropic force in Dallas. One of the many great things she did was to generously support UT Dallas, including establishing a full-ride scholarship class program.”

After graduating from UT Dallas, he went back to the office he’d previously interned at in Washington, D.C. and worked briefly in a low-level political position before returning to Texas and later serving as an aide to state Rep. Geanie Morrison during a legislative session.

That position helped him get admitted to Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service where his future wife, Sarah, was also a student. At this point, Janecka was convinced that the path he wanted to pursue was in public service abroad, such as the diplomatic corps, which is why his focus was in international affairs.

One of the arduous requirements for the degree was attaining fluency in a foreign language, which would be administered by a native speaker. Janecka chose German, which he had already studied in high school and college.

To help attain fluency, he set his sights on another internship, this time with the Peace Research Institute of Frankfurt in Germany. Here, he spent time researching bunker busting nuclear weaponry, which the United States was developing at the time, in part because of the war in Afghanistan.

Before reporting to the internship, Janecka and others from the Bush School, including Sarah, went on an educational trip to Brussels and Berlin. In Berlin, Sarah’s camera was stolen, and if she had any hope that the insurance company would reimburse the loss, she needed a police report.

To get it, she enlisted Janecka as the German speaker.

“We weren’t yet dating at that time,” he says, “so I think that helped my cause.”

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A detour in teaching

For the first time since former Chairman Bryan Shaw and now-Executive Director Toby Baker both stepped down in 2018, TCEQ’s commission now comprises a full three members, including Commissioner Emily Lindley (left); Chairman Jon Niermann (middle); and new Commissioner Bobby Janecka (right). Also pictured is Mary Smith, TCEQ’s general counsel.
For the first time since former Chairman Bryan Shaw and now-Executive Director Toby Baker both stepped down in 2018, TCEQ’s commission now comprises a full three members, including Commissioner Emily Lindley (left); Chairman Jon Niermann (middle); and new Commissioner Bobby Janecka (right). Also pictured is Mary Smith, TCEQ’s general counsel.

Besides getting noticed by Sarah, Janecka also learned during his time in Germany that striving for the diplomatic corps and living abroad were just not for him.

Instead, he took a completely different route and applied for the Teach for America program, which places teachers in low-income schools. He taught special education in post-Katrina New Orleans for nine months.

This early post-graduate school work experience was quite an eye opener.

“Public education is really hard,” Janecka says. “I loved the time with the students; I loved the people that I met and the lessons that I learned. The discipline of teaching calls for a set of skills that I had not yet mastered. It gives me a much greater appreciation for the work our teachers do.”

His then-girlfriend Sarah also moved to New Orleans. Because her degree was in nonprofit disaster management, it made the city an obvious choice for her, as well.

But before he could really hone his new craft as a teacher, all the first-year teachers in the Jefferson Parish public school system were let go during a reduction of force. The school system hired too many teachers without enough students.

“Sarah and I both experienced some tremendous professional frustrations during that time,” Janecka says.

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A leap of faith

Commissioner Bobby Janecka





Bobby Janecka





Wife:
Sarah (née Dempsey)

Children:
Elliott, 3
Malcolm, 3 months

Parents:
Russell and Gail Janecka

Hometown:
Victoria

Education:
Memorial High School, Victoria, 2002
Bachelors of Arts, University of Texas at Dallas, 2006
Masters of International Affairs, Texas A&M University, 2009

Hobbies:
Reading and watching science fiction (i.e Robert Heinlein, Battlestar Galactica, or Star Wars)
Board games and roleplaying games (such as Diplomacy, The Resistance, or GURPS)
Cooking
Hunting
Gardening (stubbornly, if only rarely successfully)

Instead of sticking around in New Orleans to see if a teaching spot would open up, the couple made a leap of faith and moved to Austin without having jobs lined up.

“The 82nd Legislative Session was just around the corner,” says Janecka, who was hoping to get back into legislative service.

Just before the session began, Janecka was hired as an aide by state Rep. Tryon Lewis, whose district included Andrews County, which is where the Waste Control Specialists low-level radioactive waste facility is located.

“The one little line on my resume about the bunker buster, the robust nuclear earth penetrator, it caught Judge Lewis’s eye,” Janecka says. “That was one of the things that I recall him asking me about in the interview. It helped me stand out a little.”

It was not just his research experience studying potential new nuclear weaponry in Frankfurt, though. Much of Janecka’s time in the Bush School was spent on studying nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation policies.

His final master’s degree project dealt with the hypothetical of nuclear materials being diverted by a rogue state and working out policies on how the United States could contain and control the situation, including how to responsibly deal with radioactive material at its conclusion.

Working for Lewis meant an education in low-level radioactive waste on the opposite spectrum of his graduate work. Janecka’s years with Lewis prepared him for the next steps in his career, which included his first stop at TCEQ as a section manager in the Radioactive Materials Division and, perhaps, played a role in his being selected to serve in the governor’s office and then as a commissioner.

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The importance of the arts

Despite all those experiences, he may never have gotten to where he wanted to be without the influence of the arts.

The son of an insurance agent and school teacher/counselor, Janecka describes himself as bookish and introverted growing up in Victoria, but the arts helped him break out of his shell, made him more open to taking chances, and were critical to his development.

“I was a very eclectic, small town boy,” he says. “I was described by the blurb of that [McDermott] scholarship program as ‘a singer, actor, dancer.’ All of those things were accurate, but I was horrified to see it all together and see myself described that way.”

He participated in and helped produce the annual Nutcracker ballet for many years in Victoria. He also acted in other community theater productions, sang in the children’s choir, and played the trumpet in band.

When he attended graduate school at Texas A&M, Janecka played in a student band called Diminished Returns, which was named after an economic principle discussed during one of his graduate classes. The band, for which Janecka was the lead singer, played an A&M graduation party and other small gigs around College Station.

"I can’t run away from that arts element,” he says. “I guess it’s just a part of my personality.”

Without the arts and their challenges, he says he would likely be much more introverted, perhaps without the ability to speak in public and work a crowd—skills critical to service in political circles.

Now, Janecka will need to harness all of the skills he has picked up over the years and apply them to his new role as a TCEQ commissioner.

“This is the best environmental agency in the country, if not the world,” he says. “I am now situated to represent the TCEQ. I may be the only person that many people in the Legislature interact with for their impression of this agency. I hope I can do some good for the employees of the agency and for its mission.”

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All photos TCEQ.