That members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) are conflicted over the appointment of their new executive director is a surprise only to those who haven’t been paying attention. Conservation is by nature a contact sport, especially at a time when the human population is growing and competition for natural resources is intensifying. To expect the council’s 12 members — four legislators, eight citizens — to unanimously agree on how to benefit game, fish and wildlife with the $100 million the council helps oversee annually is naive enough. More so is to think the council’s next executive director would be selected by acclamation.
The issue arises because current executive director Bill Becker is retiring, and at the council’s Aug. 5 meeting, three members walked out rather than participate in what they believed was a sham process that excluded three of five finalists for the job.
The council had been informed only the day before that just two of 35 original applicants would be presented to them for a vote. One was Heather Koop, the council’s assistant director and project analyst manager, the other Kevin Bigalke, district administrator for the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District.
Arguing that a process with such limited options foretold its own conclusion, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and citizen council members Scott Rall of Worthington and vice chairman Jim Cox of Cologne took a hike. Council member Bob Anderson of International Falls agreed with the trio’s position but remained in the room.
Each later said that unless all five finalists are interviewed by the full council, they won’t participate in the hiring process.
And in fact, a motion was made following the walkout (a quorum remained in the room) to consider the five finalists whose names had been submitted to a subcommittee of the council appointed by chair David Hartwell. That motion failed. But another followed and was approved to consider three finalists, the addition to Koop and Bigalke being Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
Which is where things stand heading into the council’s Sept. 10-11 meetings.
Walking out of the LSOH council meeting in protest as Ingebrigtsen, Rall and Cox did reprised a time-honored piece of political Americana that dates to the nation’s beginnings, and has been practiced every year since.
Representing New York at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, for example, John Lansing Jr. and Robert Yates both walked out after six weeks, believing the constitution as proposed infringed on states’ sovereignty (they had a point). Neither ever signed the document, though each would serve honorably as chief justice of the New York Supreme Court, appointments that suggested the pair were less impetuous — as some might have claimed following their walkout — than principled.
Vis-à-vis the Lessard-Sams council, much maneuvering is now occurring behind the scenes regarding the executive director position. So much so that if you watch the Netflix serial “House of Cards,’’ you’ll get the drift of some of the meanderings.
Koop, Bigalke and Johnson can each claim support among some council members. But the faction demanding that all five finalists be heard from — the other two are former legislator and Department of Natural Resources deputy commissioner and commissioner Mark Holsten, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency attorney Jean Coleman — is not without its backers, as well.
Should, in fact, Rall, Ingebrigtsen, Anderson and Cox walk instead of participating in executive director interviews of only three candidates, perhaps joined by Ron Schara or another member, a vote on a new executive director could still be held, because a quorum would remain.
But the ushering in of a new staff boss with such tenuous support among council members could be problematic for all involved, not least the citizens who fork over the $100 million each year to the Outdoor Heritage Fund (another $200 million annually in Legacy Amendment funds benefit clean water, parks and trails, and the arts).
All of which could have been avoided had Hartwell, as chairman, developed consensus among members as the selection process unfolded. Had he done so, the reasonable argument that council members should have more candidates to choose from, not fewer, likely would have gained traction, while simultaneously neutralizing council busybodies such as Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, an otherwise valuable conservationist-legislator whose fingerprints, as usual, appear to be everywhere here.
After all, the résumé of Mark Johnson — the third candidate — measures well against those of Koop and Bigalke.
Each holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and each is qualified to be considered seriously for the job. But among the three, only Johnson has years of firsthand experience working with the sporting factions that were the original, and primary, supporters of the 2008 Legacy Act that voters overwhelmingly approved. (Before leading MDHA, Johnson was executive director of Turn In Poachers, and before that a field representative with the Ruffed Grouse Society.)
How could Johnson not be considered a job finalist? For that matter, how could Holsten, the former DNR commissioner, and Coleman, an experienced land-use planner who coordinated the 45-member team that wrote the Minnesota Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan for the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, be overlooked?
As Schara has said: “The council is expected to pick a relative handful of the best habitat projects from among the dozens submitted to us. But for some reason we can’t be trusted to choose an executive director from among five candidates?’’
Perhaps as some suspect, trickery has been afoot in the hiring process.
Or, to paraphrase Chico Marx in “Duck Soup’’: “Who you gonna believe? Them or your own eyes?’’
Hartwell could quiet the stir if at the council’s next meetings he supported a five-finalist position, a move a majority of the panel likely would join.
But timing is important: The five should be considered by the full council at a late September or early October meeting, ensuring that current members have a say in the executive director’s hiring (Cox, Schara, Kingston and Rall are up for reappointment — or not — in January).
Absent that, well, it’s a roll of the dice.
Which, like walking out of meetings in protest, has long been an important part of American governance.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org