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.