When the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council convenes Tuesday to interview three finalists to replace the council’s retiring executive director, Bill Becker, it’s a safe bet that the rancor won’t exceed the level that surfaced at the powerful panel’s last meeting.
What’s less clear: Will that rancor be diminished?
When the OHC last met in August, a dispute over the procedures used to winnow the candidates for the council’s top staff position prompted three members of the panel to walk out of the meeting in protest.
The move drew sharp rebukes from other council members, who accused the dissidents of “taking their ball and going home,” and a subsequent public scolding from the Star Tribune editorial board, which dubbed the episode “a black eye for Legacy Council.”
Tensions over priorities and protocols are nothing new for the 12-member OHC, which is in charge of developing recommendations to the Legislature for approximately $100 million a year in outdoors-related projects that are funded by the three-eighths of 1 cent sales tax approved by voters in 2008.
The highly public nature of the squabble, however, is unusual.
Status of dissenters unclear
In August, the three members who walked out — Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and citizen representatives Scott Rall and James Cox — complained that they had been excluded from meaningful involvement in the selection of the new director and said they would refuse to participate in the process.
A fourth member of the council, Bob Anderson of International Falls, did not walk out but also indicated he wouldn’t participate further in the hiring decision.
As the council looks to regroup on Tuesday, it remains uncertain whether the dissident members will stick to that pledge — and, if so, what that means for the OHC going forward.
“I’m still debating. I’ll go to the meeting on Tuesday and see what develops. At this point, no decisions have been made,” said Rall, a financial analyst from Worthington who has served on the council as a citizen member since 2009.
“I guess I’m going to show up and see what happens,” said Cox, a businessman from Cologne. “I’m sure they [the majority] are going to try and shove it down our throat. But all I would ask is that they let us have a chance to interview all five finalists, instead of holding out and being this obstinate.”
Ingebrigtsen did not return calls seeking comment.
In the search for Becker’s replacement, a five member subcommittee on the council, handpicked by the council chair David Hartwell, selected two finalists from a field of six, one of whom subsequently withdrew. That came after staff members with the Legislative Coordinating Commission winnowed down the 35 original applicants for the job.
After the walkout, the remaining council members delayed scheduled interviews with the two finalists — Heather Coop, who is currently the assistant director of the OHC, and Kevin Bigalke, the district administrator for the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District.
In a stab at fence mending, the council also agreed to interview one other applicant who had earlier been ruled out, Mark Johnson, the executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, one of four lawmakers who serve on the OHC, said he is unsure what will happen on Tuesday.
“If there aren’t five candidates, I expect they’ll walkout again. I think we’ll just proceed and the process will move forward,” said Hansen. “But it will be awkward if they walk out on the hiring and then come back to make recommendations for next year’s Legislature. It’s like eating dessert after you’ve passed on the main course.”
Hansen said the dispute underscores a larger rift on the OHC between those members who prioritize projects that explicitly benefit hunting and fishing and other members who favor projects with less obvious benefits to the hook-and-bullet crowd.
“The bottom line is that there is a small fraction of good old boys who believe they are acting on behalf of all hunters and anglers and this money belongs to them,” Hansen said. “That’s been the prevailing factor with this council since its inception. This faction had a working majority on the council, and now they don’t, so they’re angry.”
Both Rall and Cox said they were motivated principally by concerns over the hiring process.
“My desire to look at a broader field of candidates is no reflection on the candidates we have. I’m sure we have fine candidates” said Rall. “But there were five individuals who were deemed to have the proper credentials. My field of view is very narrow when I’m asked to pick from just two.”
However, Cox, a past president of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, acknowledged that he has some reservations about the background of the two finalists.
“They don’t come from the outdoors community. They don’t hunt, they don’t fish, they’re not connected to the outdoor groups,” said Cox.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the dispute on the council is regrettable — and probably could have been avoided.
“We whittled down to two candidates because we thought they were the best in the pool,” said McNamara, who served on the subcommittee which selected the two finalists. He said the whole council would have been given an opportunity to interview five candidates if it had been more clear that the issue would become so contentious.
“I think it’s safe to say that we could work better together,” McNamara said of the rift. “I think some people are letting personalities and personal views get in the way.”
However, McNamara said the dustup over the hiring has been overplayed and only serves to obscure “all the phenomenal stuff we’re doing for the state of Minnesota.”
For his part, Rall echoed that sentiment, characterizing the current friction on the council as an isolated incident.
“This is not normal. Our council has a great level of cohesion and continuity. And when this issue is put to rest, that cohesion will return,” said Rall.
Despite differences in interests and expertise among council members, Rall noted that the council has typically managed to reach consensus on its annual spending proposals. “Almost every year we’ve passed our recommendations on to the Legislature by a vote of 12-0,” he said.