The embattled director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, who was fired and then had her firing “suspended”, will now undergo a job performance review.
“It’s been a tough two months. It’s been a tough year,” Susan Thornton, the commission’s director, said after a more than two hour meeting Friday that featured several testy exchanges. “I knew it was coming” she said of the sometimes tense meeting.
Thornton was the target in December of an effort by Republican legislators to fire her, but legislators again Friday sidestepped fully explaining what was behind the move. A House Republican spokesperson said earlier that the termination was part of an attempt to steer the 17-member commission – which has operated in relative obscurity at the state Capitol -- to other priorities, including “more on the ground conservation and habitat projects” such as aquatic invasive species and chronic wasting disease issues.
“We’ve all talked about moving on,” said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, the panel’s co-chair. “I think everybody understands that. I think Ms. Thornton even understands that.”
Jeff Broberg, the panel’s co-vice chair, said however that the LCCMR needed to fully air what had transpired, especially since Thornton answers to the commission. “We’ve had quite a lot of disturbance [in] the last couple of months,” said Broberg, who said the attempt to fire Thornton had taken place without informing the LCCMR why it was being done.
At one point, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, closely quizzed Thornton on how she had handled the return of a check from Ducks Unlimited last summer.
“I think we need to note the hostility here, first,” interrupted Broberg, who said the issue had already been aired in detail last fall. “I’m a little incredulous that this is coming up now.”
“I don’t know what ‘incredulous’ means,” McNamara replied. “I just want to know where the money is.
“I’m offended,” he added.
But several members – at times over Hackbarth’s objections – pushed for a broader explanation of the attempt to fire Thornton, who sat alongside Hackbarth during the LCCMR’s first meeting since the episode. “It’s been so unfortunate what’s gone on,” said Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, a panel member. The firing, she said, amounted to “an unwarranted attack on a very good employee.”
The LCCMR recommends how money from the state’s environmental trust fund, which gets state lottery proceeds, is spent on environmental and natural resources projects. Thornton, who has hired a lawyer, has served as director since 2008.
In what appeared to be an attempt to bridge the philosophical difference over the panel’s role, Higgins led an effort Friday to have the LCCMR take a more active role in providing money for projects that combat invasive species, especially Asian carp.
“We are way behind on addressing this carp issue,” Hackbarth agreed. “We have been talking about this for at least the last 10 years that I know of, and have not taken any action.”
After the meeting, McNamara downplayed that there had been any friction at the meeting. “I’ve got over a hundred first cousins,” he said, smiling. “[This meeting] was a cake walk compared to what I’ve been through.”