Beware Political Appointees at DNR

Many people throughout the nation have been watching the events
taking place in Madison during the end of February and early
March.

The reason is that Governor Scott Walker, who was elected with a
vote of 1,128,159 for him while 1,005,008 voted for his opponent,
introduced a budget repair bill that, in my opinion, will inject
more politics into the Department of Natural Resources.

He then introduced his proposed budget for 2011-2013.  The new
proposed budget was just introduced and it takes time to go through
and find all of the changes that will affect the DNR, and those
will be highlighted in Wisconsin Outdoor News.

A first glance shows the new budget will have lots of impact on DNR
programs – eliminating recycling grants, eliminating the purchase
of conservation easements, and eliminating payments in lieu of
taxes on new land purchased with Stewardship money. 

The budget also appears to make a statement that all future
Stewardship purchases will be open for all public uses, eliminating
any controversy about which nature-based outdoor recreation will or
will not be allowed.  Restrictions could be made on trails when
needed for public safety or a natural resource or past usership
pattern.

The Governor has said that the new budget is negotiable, so we will
wait to see what changes are made. What is not negotiable, he said,
is the budget repair bill. There are few who will argue that with
tough financial times public employees shouldn’t pay more toward
their retirement program and health insurance.

But a less visible part is his “repair” bill shifts key cabinet
agency positions to unclassified status.  Classified positions are
those that are filled by the normal civil service procedure
(vacancy posting, a written test, interview, and then the agency
can hire from among the top candidates).  Unclassified positions
are appointed by the governor or the agency secretary after
clearing the appointment with the governor.

The governor’s proposal will make the chief DNR legal counsel
(currently Mike Lutz), public information officer (vacant, though
previously held by Adam Collins) and legislative liaison (Elizabeth
Kluesner) appointed or unclassified positions.  An equivalent
number of classified positions are eliminated to offset the new
positions, so that there is no net gain in positions at the
agency.

This is a move to put more political appointees in an agency which
years ago were limited just to the Secretary’s office.

It brings to mind a conversation I once had with the late Wilbur
Stites.  Stites had worked for the Illinois Conservation Department
and in the 1950s was brought up to Wisconsin to begin its radio and
television broadcasting efforts.  He became the host of the popular
“Wisconsin Outdoors” radio and television programs and served as
president of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.

Stites observed that, in Illinois, whenever a new governor was
elected, a ripple effect took place and even some of the managers
in the field were replaced by political appointees.

People who knew the then-Wisconsin Conservation Department found
that unbelievable, and knew that in Wisconsin employees were
selected by the civil service system and nobody feared losing their
position following an election.

Things change, and today Wisconsin has taken on some of those
Illinois features once thought abhorrent.  Already the key division
administrators are appointed with the approval of the governor, and
neither the Secretary, nor the deputy secretary nor the executive
assistant came up through the ranks of the department.

Sure, the secretary would like to appoint the top legal beagle; a
hand-picked person able to give the OK to anything the secretary
wants.  But, there should be someone who knows natural resources
laws and who has the job protection to say “No, you can’t do that
Mr./Madam Secretary.”

Likewise a chief spokesperson should be more concerned about giving
the public the truth rather than protecting the boss and patting
the rear end of the governor.

Do you want to know an easy way of knowing whether a natural
resources department in any state is a cabinet or independent
agency?  Just listen to the first few utterances of the
spokesperson or read the first few paragraphs of a news release,
and you’ll always see a positive attribution to the governor in
those departments where the chief is appointed by the gov.

 We now need to look at the details in the proposed budget, but we
yearn for previous days when we knew all the people we talked to at
DNR were natural resources professionals.

Categories: Wisconsin – Tim Eisele

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