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Parks commission may decide fate of director Hutchinson

By Rusty Marks, Staff writer

The president of the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission said parks officials should review court transcripts of this week’s timber theft trial before deciding if disciplinary action should be taken against Parks Director Jeff Hutchinson.

“I’ll probably turn it over to the [Parks Commission’s] personnel committee to review,” said retired state Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett, president of the county parks board.

On Wednesday, logger David Russell Bowen was acquitted of charges alleging he stole timber from Coonskin Park in May and June 2013.

Bowen had made an agreement with Hutchinson to remove trees and debris from Coonskin left over from the 2012 derecho in exchange for tax write-offs.

But there was never a written contract. Hutchinson and parks officials said Bowen was authorized to cut down 31 trees, but Bowen eventually cut 360 before the operation was halted by the state Division of Forestry.

Members of the county parks commission approved the arrangement with Bowen, and stood behind Hutchinson when the scope of the timbering done by Bowen was discovered. But Tackett said parks commission members might reconsider Hutchinson’s part in the arrangement now that prosecutors have lost their case against Bowen.

At the time the timbering operation was discovered, several people -- including Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper -- wondered how a logging job that big could have gone on without Hutchinson or other parks employees or parks officials knowing about it. Jurors may have felt the same way, finding Bowen innocent Wednesday of charges of destruction of property, willful damage to timber and obtaining timber by false pretenses.

Although the Kanawha County Commission doesn’t have the power to discipline the parks director, they do have the ability to appoint members of the parks commission. County Commissioner Dave Hardy said he was not happy with Hutchinson’s handling of the logging agreement.

“I like Jeff personally, but he’s been reprimanded by the [state] ethics commission twice, and now there’s this debacle with the timbering,” Hardy said.

“I have made it clear to General Tackett that I’ve had some serious reservations about some things that have occurred at parks and recreation,” he said. “This is just one of them. I think [Hutchinson] lacks the skills to hold that job. I think he needs to resign.”

For the moment, the parks commission is withholding final judgment. “Most of the members of the parks board think [Hutchinson] has done a good job,” Tackett said.

Hutchinson said he was withholding comment until later.

In April 2013, Hutchinson was fined $1,500 in a conciliation agreement with state ethics officials. Most of the allegations against the parks director were dismissed, but the ethics commission said Hutchinson was wrong for using a parks commission vehicle to take his son to school, offering picnic shelters and park facilities to charity groups for discounts and for not telling the ethics commission about a set of golf clubs he had been given.

The parks and recreation commission stood by Hutchinson, saying he used the car with their permission and that offering discounts was common practice in the parks business. But the parks board gave Hutchinson a written reprimand for not sending the golf clubs back.

Parks commission members also took partial blame for not keeping a closer eye on the cleanup job Bowen had agreed to do.

“I think everyone on the board, including Jeff, learned a lesson,” Tackett said.

“When people are doing work that you’re not paying for, you definitely need to supervise them to make sure they’re doing what you want done,” he said. “That’s where we went wrong.”

Bowen has said all along that Hutchinson knew exactly what was going on in the park. Parks officials still have a civil lawsuit pending against the logger.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com, call 304-348-1215 or follow @rusty_marks on Twitter.


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