Being the son of a state trooper had its benefits for young Rodmen Smith, the new boss of the enforcement division at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Smith’s father, Capt. Richard Smith, was responsible for protecting three governors and their staffs. In his elementary school days, Rod played in the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue.
When then-Gov. Al Quie and First Lady Gretchen Quie traveled, they’d return with gifts for Smith and his siblings, he said. His father also forged close relationships with Gov. Wendell Anderson and Gov. Rudy Perpich before going on to head all security at the State Capitol complex.
Lt. Col. Rod Smith, who started his career as a Minneapolis cop, was promoted last month by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr to run a $38-million-a-year department staffed by 186 conservation officers who do much more than enforce Minnesota’s fish and wildlife laws. He replaces Col. Ken Soring, who retired in December after more than 35 years with the DNR.
“He’s a change agent,” Soring said of Smith. “He got this job by putting his heart and soul into it.”
Smith was a top assistant under Soring and Jim Konrad, the previous DNR enforcement chief. Known by agency insiders as a progressive, Smith helped craft the division’s 2015-2025 strategic plan, spearheaded ongoing advances in electronic record-keeping and has played a prominent role in communicating with the Legislature.
And he’s not afraid to go against the grain. For instance, he’s already raising the touchy subject of on-duty hours for a cadre of officers who work from home, setting their own schedules. The system has led to imbalances in service, he said, like when all officers in a region work the morning of a hunting season opener and no one is around to take calls in the afternoon.
“Because there are so few of us, we need a better coordinated plan on work hours,” he said.
Other goals? Find additional ways to improve service delivery, diversify a predominantly white male staff, escalate staff training and modernize equipment. Real reform has to go deep and last long, he said, “because culture eats process for breakfast.”
If some employees envision Smith being outlasted by the status quo, they might consider that he was one of the youngest internal candidates to apply for his new job. Soring said part of Smith’s appeal as a leader is that he can set a long-term agenda before reaching the retirement age of 55. Smith is 44.
“Longevity could be a benefit,” said Soring, who — like Konrad — didn’t ascend to the top job until late in his career.
Said Smith: “It’s hard to change culture when you have an expiration date as a leader.”
A long credenza in Smith’s new office on the first floor of DNR headquarters in St. Paul is flush with framed snapshots of his wedding day, family life, friends, fishing and hunting. Rod grew up fishing with his dad for walleyes, perch and panfish. They also went darkhouse spearing, and fishing remains his most beloved recreation. Now he’s sharing the outdoors with his two daughters, ages 11 and 7.
“It’s priceless,’’ he said.
Rod and Kimberly Smith own a cabin on Lake Winnibigoshish with other family members. That’s where Rod shot the monster buck that hangs from his office wall. He keeps a picture of the 12-pointer at the lake cabin. During deer camp, he’ll ceremoniously touch the photo while razzing his brother and others to “hunt like a champion today.”
The family dog is a yellow Lab named Finn, and their home is in the Lino Lakes area. The Smiths ride snowmobiles together and Rod has started to take their oldest girl on waterfowl outings.
Smith studied law enforcement at St. Cloud State University, but he didn’t always want to do police work. Coming out of White Bear Lake High School in 1990, he started his college career as an accounting major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. High tuition prompted him to rethink that move, and he graduated from St. Cloud State with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and speech communication.
Smith wanted to be a conservation officer at the DNR, but didn’t get hired on his first try. Instead, he worked two years as an officer in the Minneapolis Police Department before being hired by the DNR.
While stationed Up North as a DNR officer, Smith was introduced to trapping and fell in love with it. It was a special getaway for him to run a trap line in the woods for days on end. “Fisherzilla,” a trophy fisher that Smith trapped in those efforts, now decorates a cabinet in his DNR office.
Smith, who gained budgeting and policymaking experience as a deputy director, now sits on the DNR’s senior management team, meeting every two weeks with the commissioner, other division directors, regional directors, some program directors, a human resources leader and the agency’s top in-house lawyer.
Smith said he will some day relinquish his legislative liaison duties to a deputy, but for now he’ll personally be at the forefront of Gov. Mark Dayton’s push for a new felony poaching law. The governor’s proposed legislation will be carried in a separate bill before the 2016 Legislature, Smith said. Last year, as an amendment, it failed.
It would allow, for the first time in Minnesota, felony prosecution of poachers involved in heinous violations of fish and wildlife laws. Smith said the initiative is only aimed at the kind of cases that “shock the conscience of people.”
The new DNR enforcement chief said other 2016 agenda items include the rollout of “ruggedized tough books” (fortified laptop computers) for use in the field by conservation officers. The enforcement division has lagged behind other state offices in getting away from paper records and Smith is determined to get it done.