The 12 unelected Minnesotans serving on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council wield extraordinary influence over the spending of an extraordinary sum of public dollars — $100 million a year. That’s one-third of the money generated by the 2008 Legacy Amendment sales tax increase dedicated to habitat, clean water, arts, and parks and trails.
Given the trust placed in the advisory council’s members, it shouldn’t be too much to expect professional conduct and respect for the democratic process. Disturbingly, three members of the body failed to meet those modest expectations when they walked out of an Aug. 5 meeting in a fit of pique because they didn’t have the votes to get what they wanted. The council could have proceeded without them, but did not.
The Outdoor Heritage Council was deep in the process of reviewing candidates to replace retiring director Bill Becker when the dispute occurred. Officially, the OHC’s role in the hiring is advisory; the Legislative Coordinating Commission, a legislative management body, has the authority to make this legislative employee hire. But the OHC recommendation carries clout.
Beginning in March, legislative staff and an advisory panel of five OHC members worked to winnow the list from 35 to two after extensive interviews. But on Aug. 5, as the two finalists were waiting to be interviewed by the full council, some council members suddenly insisted on having five finalists without even bothering to do the interviews.
The walkout resulted when a majority of the board didn’t agree to that. That one of the three who stormed out in a huff is State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, is even more stunning. As an assistant Senate minority leader, Ingebrigtsen should realize the impossibility of governing if decisionmakers disregard majority rule or stomp off to avoid being on the losing end of a vote. The precedent set by Ingebrigtsen and his two walkout comrades — Jim Cox and Scott Rall, is potentially poisonous.
At a minimum, the poor judgment displayed by the three should have caught the eye of those responsible for their appointments. Ingebrigtsen and Cox are Minnesota Senate appointees. Rall is a gubernatorial appointee.
The terms for Cox and Rall are up in January 2015, while Ingebrigtsen serves at the discretion of his appointing authority: the Minnesota Senate. If the three walk out again at the upcoming September meeting, which both Cox and Rall threatened to do this week in interviews with an editorial writer, those with authority over the trio’s tenure need to weigh their continued service on the council.
In addition to hiring an executive director, the council has looming decisions yet to make on funding recommendations for the vast sum of public money involved. Will these three pull the same stunt if a conservation group they support doesn’t get the money they think it deserves?
The 2011 removal of DFL Rep. Rick Hansen from the OHC at the behest of that session’s Republican legislative leadership suggests that appointing authorities have discretion in members’ continued service. Hansen is now back on the OHC, but his troubles in 2011 came about after he ruffled the feathers of powerful outdoor special interests by asking hard questions.
Walking out of board meetings, in hopes of imposing a minority view, is a far more serious matter.
OHC Chairman David Hartwell needs to make sure that this irresponsible behavior is not rewarded. The OHC members who remained in the Aug. 5 meeting attempted to compromise with the walkout trio by adding a third finalist. The three that the board will now weigh appear to be solid candidates.
The original finalists are Heather Koop, an assistant director and project analyst at OHC, and Kevin Bigalke, district administrator for the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District. The additional candidate is Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
It’s worth noting that the OHC is using the same hiring process now as it did when it hired Becker in 2009, though Becker was the only finalist recommended to the board at that time. He served with distinction. There’s no reason to believe that the same process won’t yield another executive director of the same caliber. It’s also important to note that they job’s key duty is administering vast sums of public money as grants. The board needs to hire someone experienced and skilled at this, not simply someone who likes to fish or hunt. Comments made at the Aug. 5 meeting suggested that some council members are putting too high a priority on these enthusiasms as a qualification.
Ingebrigtsen, to his credit, was mulling whether the walkout was a mistake. Cox and Rall this week were dead set on walking out again at the OHC’s September meeting if there were not five finalists. Another council member, Bob Anderson, also has said he may walk out unless there are five.
Hartwell and the board’s majority have made a reasonable compromise by adding the additional candidate. The OHC should proceed with the interviews when it meets in September. Becker leaves in November, and no further delay should be brooked in getting a new leader on board.