Commissioner picks still remain an issue

Jeff Mulhollem

Game and fish commissioner appointments have been controversial
for a century. Today, with deer-management and trout-stocking
issues at the forefront of sportsmen debate, that is likely more
true than ever.

“If Jesus Christ himself were nominating commissioner
candidates, there would still be people unhappy with his
selections,” says Robb Miller, adviser to Gov. Ed Rendell for
hunting, fishing and conservation. Miller controls the screening
process that provides commission candidate finalists for the
governor to pick from. (See story on Page 1.)

“The unfortunate thing is that commissioner selection is a
mystery to most sportsmen who feel like they have no say in the
process,” argues Randy Santucci, of Pittsburgh, who was a finalist
for the Game Commission District 2 seat picked by Miller’s advisory
council. His name was sent to Gov. Rendell along with three
others.

But the governor chose to nominate Bob Schlemmer, of
Murraysville, instead, who reportedly was told he had earned the
District 2 spot eight years ago before then-Gov. Tom Ridge abruptly
nominated Roxane Palone instead. Schlemmer is now waiting for
Senate confirmation before joining the Game Commission board.

“I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes, and Schlemmer is
qualified and maybe deserves the seat, but he had been chairman of
Miller’s advisory council, was never interviewed by that council
like the rest of the candidates, and I know now that it was his
seat all along,” Santucci says. “I was misled to believe I had a
chance, and I feel like it was unfair and I wasted my time and the
time of elected officials who lobbied for me.”

Santucci had praise for the interviews conducted by the advisory
council, saying the process seemed unbiased and the questions were
appropriate. “But it is after that the process breaks down and
becomes political when the governor and senators start cutting
deals,” he says. “This state needs a new way of picking
commissioners that would serve sportsmen – perhaps some sort of
ballot given out when hunting and fishing licenses are
purchased.”

Santucci suggests that candidates with connections to the
commissions be disqualified immediately. He notes that Schlemmer
was a long-time deputy wildlife conservation officer and that the
father of another pending nominee was a conservation officer for
decades.

Santucci may be right , but I believe the selection process is
better today than when I was a fish commissioner candidate back in
the mid-1990s. Back then, seemingly the only qualification for a
seat was membership in a bunch of sportsmen’s groups, and strong
support from fishing and hunting clubs and organizations.

Perhaps some folks still think that is right, but at that time
education, job experience and brains didn’t seem to matter much. A
representative of then-Gov. Ridge’s Sportsmen’s Advisory Council
told me that I “didn’t interview well.” Perhaps, but it turned out
that seat was given to an elderly, slightly confused but affable
former deputy waterways conservation officer.

You might remember the chairman of that advisory panel. He was
none other than Vern Ross, who somehow became Game Commission
executive director.

Seemed like you couldn’t be a commissioner back then unless you
had senator friends or were retired and had time to lobby
sportsmen’s clubs extensively for two years. Or maybe both.

“That’s not the way it is today,” Miller pointed out. “I don’t
think anyone would argue that the commissioners my committee has
helped to seat in the last few years are very qualified, and a lot
of the finalists whose names we passed to the governor could also
have served with distinction.

“The thing to remember is that these are volunteer positions
with eight year-terms, and these individuals make a lot of
sacrifices,” Miller added. “They really are high-quality
volunteers.”

Word is the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania is pondering some
sort of legal action to attempt to change the
commissioner-selection process that has been in existence for 100
years. Good luck.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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