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Statehouse Beat: Conservation district grants involve serious money

Last week, I wrote about the little-known office of state conservation district supervisors, pointing out that some turn the position into a fairly lucrative second job, pulling in upwards of nearly $20,000 a year in compensation and expenses (and at a total cost to taxpayers of between $550,000 and $650,000 a year).

I started to get into why some supervisors are so adamant about wanting to be exempted from the state Ethics Act’s prohibition of having private interest in public contracts, so that they can vote to award themselves agriculture grants.

Turns out the money available for programs to reduce soil erosion, protect streams and improve water quality and enhance farm productivity is not trivial.

The primary state fund, for the Agricultural Enhancement Program, amounts to $880,000 a year, divided among the 14 conservation districts in the state, according to state Conservation Agency Executive Director Brian Farkas.

By definition, the conservation district supervisors are prime candidates to receive the funds, since in order to run for the office, they must be landowners and must be farmers or retired farmers.

As Kanawha County Conservation Supervisor Fred Hays notes, prior to the Ethics Act (and the 2013 advisory opinion that supervisors cannot vote to award themselves or relatives grants in excess of $1,000), “My fellow supervisors were mostly taking care of themselves and their buddies.”

(I suspect there must be other grant-awarding boards and commissions where board members are prime candidates to receive those funds, but at the moment, I’m drawing a blank on any.)

The last-night-of-the-session compromise legislation in lieu of a blanket Ethics Act exemption (SB365) hardly solves the problem. Under the draft rule, now up for public comment, when a conservation supervisor or relative applies for a state grant, that application is to be transferred to one of the 13 other conservation district panels to be voted on.

Under the draft, there is no provision to conceal the names of applicants, so the conservation supervisors will know when fellow supervisors are seeking state funding.

As Kanawha County Conservation Supervisor Aimee Figgatt noted, there have already been comments at supervisors’ conferences to the effect that those applications will automatically be rubber-stamped — unless the supervisor in question is out of favor with his colleagues.

In addition to concealing names of applicants, Hays suggests one way to temper the current good-old-boy network of conservation supervisors would be to eliminate the farmer/landowner requirements and allow all residents to run for the office.

As he noted, the office is not limited to farming, but to various aspects of preserving and protecting natural resources, soil and water.

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Speaking of the Ethics Commission, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has set the new commission’s first meeting date for Thursday. (In addition to appointing the new members, the legislation reconstituting the commission from a 12- to nine-member panel had the unusual provision of requiring that the governor set the time and place for the first meeting.)

The new commission’s first agenda includes an advisory opinion that the old commission postponed action on in June, regarding the ethics of the legislative franking privilege to send letters to constituents.

A draft opinion concludes it is ethical for legislators to send constituent letters at the Legislature’s expense, so long as the letters are informational, and do not contain campaign materials, campaign slogans, party propaganda, or self-promotion.

In June, commissioners wanted clarification regarding who screens the letters for potential campaign rhetoric (the House and Senate clerks), and whether the Legislature and/or secretary of state’s office have any official rules or regulations regarding constituent letters.

A favorable advisory opinion would moot a politically motivated Ethics complaint or complaints filed by Republican operative Rob Cornelius against Democrat legislators who sent out constituent letters. Judging just by the composition of the new commission, the odds are against Cornelius: It’s made up of five Democrats, three Republicans and one independent.

Cornelius has a reputation at the Capitol as a serial-filer of multiple fishing-expedition FOIAs, but apparently has reached a new low of frivolousness by FOIAing any communications I’ve had with legislative offices regarding the franking privilege issue.

That should be an easy answer: There are none.

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Finally, speaking of the Ethics Commission, one of the more interesting lobbyist financial disclosures was filed by Jill Rice, representing the state Insurance Federation, regarding a “Legislator of the Year” vase presented to Senate Clerk Joe Minard, with a listed value of $153.

She wrote: “While the cost of the commemorative vase exceeded the $20 threshold for gifts to state employees [actually, the threshold is $25], pursuant to the guidance of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, the vase was personalized by way of engraving Clerk Minard’s name and award on the item, which rendered the value of the gift nominal.”

I guess by the same rationale, the value of a $1,000 custom-made suit could be rendered nominal with a personalized label on the inside lapel.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304.348.1220.


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