01 August 2013

Game Commissioners and Staff Averse to Commentary at Meeting

Members of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and agency staff actively prevented public discourse on acquisition of a proposed wildlife area in Cherry county at their July meeting.

On the agenda of the July 26th meeting at Commission headquarters in Lincoln, the commissioners — with a unanimous vote — did approve the acquisition of the area to be known as Chat Canyon WMA. It was done without any opportunity for people present to convey their comments.

There were six men present from Cherry County, with some of them wanting to express their views. There was also a member of the conservation community from Lincoln that had hoped to testify, as well as myself.

While attending the meeting, the situation was obviously apparent upon wanting to sign my name upon a sheet of paper to allow testimony, at this public meeting. There was no such sheet available for this agenda item, and upon asking for one, the realty coordinator of the agency soon arrived and said there would not be one. The public hearing on the matter was held at Valentine, he said.

Upon asking for an opportunity to provide public comment to the commissioners, he said public comments would not be allowed, as the Valentine meeting was public hearing.

Upon asking if there would be any opportunity to speak on this matter, he said, just wait and see what happens. He would not make any effort to allow any comments to the commissioners. During our lively discussion on the 3rd floor of the Game Commission headquarters, a law enforcement officer stood a few feet away, giving particular attention to the situation.

Later, upon asking one of the commissioners, why public testimony would not be allowed, he basically said that there had been nothing published in a public record to indicate that public testimony would be allowed. It was a hurried situation, which resulted in a "law enforcement man" using his hands to grab and guide me away since the board was ready to reconvene after a recess. The agency director also said that the place where I was standing was off limits.

The sole source for these sorts of announcements is the Lincoln newspaper, it was subsequently determined.

A public hearing was held in Valentine on June 17, 2013. At this hearing, eleven people testified, with seven opposed and four supportive, according to the comments provided by Scott McCoy, administrator of the wildlife division of the state agency.

Prior to the commission meeting, six letters of support for acquisition of the property were received by the agency. This information was given to the commissioners, according to agency staff.

Based upon inquiries on Friday morning, it was determined that there were no NGPC commissioners present at the June meeting in Valentine.

So there was no opportunity for anyone to present public comments to any of the commissioners.

During the vote for approval of the staff recommendation to acquire the tract, the six men from Cherry County stood in silent protest.

The property along the Niobrara River south of Nenzel would be purchased with funds from four sources:

  • Forest Legacy Grant: 59%;
  • Nebraska Forest Service: 35%;
  • Nebraska Game and Parks Commission: 4% from their cash fund; and
  • National Wild Turkey Federation: 2%.

During the meeting, someone wanted to provide comments but the "presiding officer" said the board "has to stick to protocol" as the person was moved away by a law enforcement man of the agency. This time, when escorted away, the "law enforcement man" was asked to keep his hands to himself.

After the "official" board meeting, the director of the state agency met privately with the men from Cherry County. Upon asked to be present, the response was that it was private, and that they could be met with later.

Site Name

While at the meeting, there was a private discussion with the director of the agency, regarding the designated place name.

Mr. Douglas said that selecting a name is something not "subject to public debate." During a latter discussion with a member of the commission board, a suggestion was made that perhaps a contest could be held to derive a name based upon Chat ___ WMA. The board member seemed agreeable, but within a few minutes that context was ignored.

Obviously the views of three agency staff, considering the name of proposed public area to be bought using public funds, supersede any public input. Bureaucrats decided the name.

Public Discourse

Being supportive of the acquisition of this place, ancillary situations became prominently problematic at the Friday commission meeting.

The primary issue was a repeated effort to limit public comments, at a public meeting.

At the end of the meeting while standing at the microphone, the Commission board completely ignored my presence, and voted unanimously to adjourn.

Communication Lacking

Based upon details associated with the acquisition of this property, emails, and attending the commission meeting, there are some particulars to consider. They are especially focused on improving communication and an understanding of the situation regarding NGPC commission meetings.

  • The agency blog site should present the commission agenda, and the official record associated with the agenda with requisite details should be published in more than one newspaper, since the agency deals with items throughout the state of Nebraska;
  • Items on the meeting agenda should be specifically indicate whether or not public testimony would be allowed;
  • Emails with agency staff should convey whether or not public testimony could occur, whereas in this situation there was not any indication of this sort;
  • The people of Nebraska should be given the opportunity to select names for wildlife areas which are purchased using public funds; and
  • At the end of the monthly commission meeting, there should be an opportunity to express appropriate comments. At the end of board meetings of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, they provide such an opportunity.

In regards to acquisition of this property, there was no opportunity for the public to express their views to either a member of the NGPC board, or to the entire board.

Rather than adhering to the rigid strictures of "protocol," the commissioners should strive to accept testimony from state residents interested enough to travel to their meetings. To do otherwise places unwanted limitations on essential public discourse.

People spent money to travel to this meeting, with expectations for an opportunity to comment. They were not allowed to do so.

The lack of an opportunity for public discourse on this issue is simply a serious error in judgement by some commissioners and agency staff.

Any time there when there can be a shared discussion, with differing views, it should be readily allowed, not thwarted. A public discourse is always beneficial.