For the last six years, Ann Marie Buerkle has been involved in regulating consumer products ranging from children's toys to ATVs. In October, her service on the Consumer Product Safety Commission will come to an end.
Buerkle, an Auburn native, announced in June that she withdrew her nomination to serve as chair of the commission. She was thrice-nominated by President Donald Trump to head the agency, but the Senate didn't hold a confirmation vote.
"It was taking control of a situation," Buerkle said in an interview with The Citizen. "We could've stayed there through October — Oct. 25 will be my last day — and hoped that the Senate confirmed me. The president did his job. He nominated me three times. A little bit of frustration with the Senate in terms of the timing, but I understand the judicial priorities that have occurred and will probably continue to occur."
The impact on her staff was an issue Buerkle considered. She wanted to ensure they had certainty in their employment. But she also reflected on what she's achieved at the agency.
"Sometimes your gut is pretty reliable when it comes to things," she said. "I just had a good sense we did all that we could do. We just made so many friends in all of the stakeholders that are involved in the CPSC. It was just time to move on."
Buerkle was nominated by then-President Barack Obama and confirmed as a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2013 to serve out the remainder of a term that expired in 2018. Shortly after President Trump took office in 2017, she became acting chair of the commission and was nominated to lead the regulatory panel.
Her nomination was met with some resistance from consumer groups and Democratic senators. At her confirmation hearing in 2017, she faced questions about her opposition to a rule requiring portable generator manufacturers to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. There were concerns from consumer safety advocates, as documented in a New York Times story two years ago, that she was too close to the industries regulated by the commission.
While the Senate never voted on her confirmation, Buerkle continued to serve as acting chair of the commission. She aimed to establish relationships with consumer and industry groups.
"A concept I pushed all the time was engagement," she said. "Our agency needs to engage with consumer groups, we need to engage with industry. Everyone needs to come to the table and understand how can we best promote safety? How can we get there?"
Even though she has been with the agency for six years, she's impressed by its work. There are roughly 500 employees at the commission, which has an annual budget of up to $130 million. It enforces a handful of federal laws, most notably the Consumer Product Safety Act.
The mission — protecting the American people from unreasonable risk of injury or death — is broad and challenging, Buerkle said. But, she added, it's very important.
"Until you really focus on it you have no idea that this much effort is going into keeping Americans safe," she said.
During her tenure, the commission focused on several consumer products and led public awareness campaigns. One of the commission's efforts focused on anchoring furniture and televisions to protect children from tip-over hazards. There has been an emphasis on potential hazards related to inclined sleepers for babies.
Buerkle believes she achieved her goal of communicating with stakeholders and ensuring the commission works in a bipartisan manner. The five-member panel has three Republicans and two Democrats, but she stressed that the agency's work shouldn't be politicized.
"I would always say to staff, 'I don't care what the decision is when you get to the end of it. What I care is how you get there,'" she said.
There is another group of stakeholders Buerkle recognized. She highlighted the involvement of victims' families in advocating for stricter regulations or educational awareness campaigns.
Buerkle said the family members are typically parents of children who died due to a tip-over or another consumer product-related accident.
Her experience as a mother and grandmother — she has six children and 17 grandchildren — helped her as a commissioner. Her nursing background also helped, she said.
"It's almost a balance because it is personal and yet when you're regulating, it's not about me," she continued. "It's about incidents. It's about hazard patterns. It's about how many products are out there. How do we get to the consumer?"
When Buerkle leaves the commission in October, she hopes to remain in the product safety realm. She doesn't have a job lined up yet, but she knows she wants to "do something that matters."
"I'm exploring all kinds of possibilities," she said.