Republican legislative leaders have dismissed the executive director of the nonpartisan environmental commission that directs $50 million a year in Minnesota lottery money toward natural resources.

DFL and citizen members of the commission said that Republicans had overstepped their authority and that only the commission, not the Republican caucus, could make such a decision. They also said it was a blatant attempt by Republicans to reduce citizen oversight on environmental funding decisions.

Kevin Watterson, spokesman for the state House Republican caucus, said that he could not comment on personnel matters, but that authority on such a decision is "undetermined." The Republican leadership believes that "in a roundabout way" it has such authority over all unclassified legislative employees, he said.

Susan Thornton, who was hired by the commission as executive director in 2008, manages the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). It was created in 1963 by state statute to provide recommendations to the Legislature on how it should spend what is now about $25 million per year in lottery money on natural resources, conservation and environmental research in Minnesota. It includes members from the House and Senate, some from each party, plus seven appointed citizens.

Vince Louwagie, Thornton's attorney, said Republican staff members told her last week that she would be terminated early next year because the Republican leadership wanted the committee to "go in another direction." LCCMR members said they were not consulted.

"I was blindsided," said Nancy Gibson, a citizen member. "I think this is the worst type of employment practice, to tell someone who has been working [for the state] for 22 years that they will be terminated without any performance review and without cause."

Last year, when Republican members of the commission outnumbered DFLers for the first time in many years, they redirected funding decisions on projects over the objections of other members, a pattern that indicates that the decision making process is becoming increasingly partisan, said Jeff Broberg, a citizen member.

"There is perception we carry power, but it's only by the questions we get to ask," he said.

The LCCMR can make only recommendations on funding; the Republican-dominated Legislature makes the final decision.

Republican Rep. Denny McNamara, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said that the Republicans on the LCCMR have made it clear they want to fund less research and more "on-the-ground" projects, with a focus on invasive species. They also want to fund projects for one year at time, rather than two years that had been the norm, he said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394