Civics lessonConservation board topic of community meeting in Brighton
BRIGHTON — A group of about 20 Washington County residents met at the Brighton Community building Wednesday night to ask questions about the powers and responsibilities of county conservation boards and county boards of supervisors. Nelson Smith of Brighton organized the meeting. He invited Supervisor Jack Seward Jr. to answer the questions he had answers for.
Most of the people at the meeting are not pleased with the Washington County Conservation Board’s decision to terminate former park ranger Bob Bellmer and allow the executive director Steve Anderson to keep his job after he paid a fine to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for hunting violations.
Seward began by saying, “I am not privy to what went on in any of those closed meetings. I have not been consulted nor have I been told by anyone from the conservation board exactly what happened. I only know as much as you guys do, what you read in the paper and what you hear secondhand.”
The conservation board can recommend prospective board members to the board of supervisors, but the board of supervisors does not have to approve the recommendation. Seward said that the supervisors asked the county attorney about who can serve on the conservation board.
“According Iowa Code Chapter 350.2, members of the board shall be selected and appointed on the basis of their demonstrated interest in conservation matters, shall serve without compensation, but may be paid for their actual and necessary expenses incurred,” Seward read from state code.
He went on to explain that the conservation board has five members and the term of office for a board member is five years. He said one conservation board member is appointed or reappointed by the supervisors each year. He also said a conservation board member could only be removed for malfeasance, nonfeasance, disability or failure to participate in board activities as set forth by the rules of the conservation board.
The board of supervisors also approves the conservation department’s budget every year.
When asked if the board of supervisors oversee the conservation board’s operations, Seward cited Iowa Code Chapter 350.4, which states, “The county conservation board shall have the custody, control and management of all real and personal property heretofore or hereafter acquired by the county for public museums, parks, preserves, parkways, playgrounds, recreation centers, county forests, county wildlife areas, and other county conservation and recreation purposes.”
Audience members expressed their frustration with the conservation board about whether the board would allow or not allow public comment at their meetings.
Seward said the conservation board meetings are open to the public, but the board does not have to allow the public to comment or to be placed on the agenda. He also consulted with an attorney with the Iowa State Association of Counties.
He read from the e-mail he sent to the ISAC legal counsel, which included the following: “In this particular case, the public is very nearly irate regarding the board’s actions on two separate personnel matters. The public has been attending the meetings in large numbers and want to be able to express their views to the board. I’ve copied and pasted several news articles from The Washington Evening Journal to give you an idea of what is going on and links to Kalona News stories that give additional details. The very last article below is the one where the conservation board rejected the public’s input.”
Seward said he sent the e-mail on Feb. 14 and received a response on Feb. 20. The legal counsel said that the law does not require that the public have time to speak at a government entity meeting. The legal counsel also said, “ I would encourage you to work with your county attorney on this matter.”
One member of the audience, John Hahn, said that since the public can’t speak at the meetings it is important that people attend every meeting.
Audience members asked Seward if the public has the right to look at the conservation board’s bills and finances. Seward said he wasn’t sure to what extent the public may obtain, and suggested they contact the county auditor to find out more.
The discussion then turned to Anderson and Bellmer.
Hahn said, “A man totally violates the law and is still in position. Somebody that may or may not have broke the law, that was two days after the man got the tickets, papers were sent to the county to have him removed. That sounds pretty stinky to me.”
“I sent a private e-mail to one member of the board,” Seward said, “and this is the essence of what I sent him. ‘There’s a definite trust problem with the general public and like I explained to you before, the public perception was that there was going to be a six -month probation attempt to heal the problems, and that was the result of a huge turnout at the Marr Park meeting. Then the next thing the public knows is somebody unknown comes in and tells the conservation board something also unknown and based on confidential information, the conservation board then acts on the firing without apparently trying to work anything out. Nothing’s released about why trying to work it out wasn’t going to happen. Instead the situation is Steve Anderson broke the law — hunting/conservation/DNR laws, no less — and got his day in court. Mercy was shown. He will try to recover the trust of the people and do a better job. Bob, however, it looks like he doesn’t get his day in court. No mercy, no trying to work it out, no trying to do things better and different and the reasons his transgressions are more deserving of firing and Steve’s are not is all confidential. There is the reason the public doesn’t trust what has happened.’”
In response to a question about who hires the executive director, Seward said the conservation board does.
Another topic of conversation was about the appropriateness of some of the conservation board’s closed sessions. A complaint has been filed with the Iowa Public Information Board about two closed sessions. Seward said the result of the complaint has not been given.
The meeting lasted about an hour. Many in the audience said they will continue to ask questions about the conservation board’s handling of the personnel issues.