COs, leader clash at Ripley meeting

Field Editor

Camp Ripley, Minn. Tension between DNR conservation officers and
St. Paul administrators over changes to scheduling and working
conditions boiled over at a meeting in Camp Ripley last week when
comments by Enforcement Division Director Bill Bernhjelm elicited
boos and jeers from assembled officers. Bernhjelm had criticized
legislative lobbying efforts by the officers’ union, the Minnesota
Conservation Officers Association (MCOA).

“I implied that misinformation spread at the Capitol by the MCOA
wasn’t helping the division’s situation,” Bernhjelm says.

The meeting was a combination awards ceremony and training
session for conservation officers, and was to include a
question-and-answer session about the new direction being taken by
the Division of Enforcement. Training was directed at core values,
the agency’s mission, and personal leadership. Tempers flared
during the training session. Bernhjelm admits that he allowed the
heated discussion to get under his skin, but stands by his
assertion that MCOA activities are hindering the Division’s
effectiveness.

“I continue to believe the tactics the union uses are
counterproductive to our success as a Division,” he says.

Union President Tony Cornish says conservation officers have
been writing letters to members of the Legislature expressing their
concerns with changes being implemented by Bernhjelm and the
agency. Cornish, who lobbies for the union during the legislative
session, announced this week that he is planning to run for a seat
in the Minnesota House of Representatives (see sidebar).

The changes to field enforcement are intended by the DNR
administration to raise the profile of conservation officers by
requiring them to have offices in DNR buildings, schedule their
work time, take calls from a St. Paul-based central dispatch, and
to use marked vehicles. Traditionally, officers have worked from
home offices and adjusted their patrol time in the field to be out
whenever they were most likely to encounter people participating in
natural resource related activities.

Bernhjelm was unable to say how the changes might improve
protection of the state’s natural resources. But he said the new
offices would make it easier for other DNR staff and the public to
find a conservation officer if they need one. The fundamental
change is intended to limit the independence of field officers and
get them to conform to an administrative system. A new, written
regulatory structure is being developed so that errant officers can
be disciplined. Bernhjelm said the regulatory changes are being
made based upon the actions of “a very few” officers.

Setting up scheduling that will let managers know when
conservation officers are working yet maintain flexibility for
officers to do work effectively will be a challenge, Bernhjelm
says. Another priority will be to see that supervisors spend more
time in the field working with individual officers. The average
supervisor oversees eight officers, but some have 10 or 11
officers. Getting into the field with officers is difficult due to
the distances between supervisor offices and field stations.

“We may need more supervisors to be able to spend time in the
field,” Bernhjelm says.

Distance, and the remote location of some field stations, will
make it difficult to find DNR office spaces for some officers.
However, administrators feel it is important that conservation
officers have more interaction with other DNR staff.

Dispatching from a central location may present challenges, too.
Dispatchers will need to have intimate familiarity with state
geography in order to know locations that callers describe and
contact the appropriate officer. Bernhjelm believes this can be
addressed with training. He said it may be possible to connect
callers with officers on cell phones or have the office call back
to get more information.

“There is no perfect system,” he says. “We’ll do the best we can
with the resources we have to get the job done.”

Could the Turn-In-Poachers line, a toll-free number widely
publicized by the DNR, become part of the dispatch system?
Bernhjelm says no, because that line, answered either from the DNR
St. Paul office or the Detroit Lakes highway patrol dispatch, is
intended for a reward system. He is uncertain whether conservation
officers will continue to have a home telephone as they do now.

Bernhjelm is committed to moving forward with the changes and
hopes to leave the hard feelings from last week’s meeting
behind.

“Now we’re trying to get back to business,” he says.

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