O'Brien County's Bell-Times-Courier -

Conservation Board Meeting Show of - Strength?


September 17, 2020

Denise Steffens showed the courage to make public statements at the September 8 O’Brien County Supervisors meeting about the personnel changes and her concerns about the future direction of O’Brien County Conservation. Also in attendance at that public meeting were several members of Little Sioux Valley Conservation Association Board members.

Some individuals were extended personal invitations to the public O’Brien County Conservation Board meeting held Wednesday September 9. In addition to all but 1 conservation board member being in attendance were Steffens, Lonna Boltjes, Dennis Vanden Hul, Dave Stoll, John Farrell, president O’Brien County Sportsmen’s Club and an additional sportsmen’s club member and Mari Radtke. Also all of the Park Rangers of the Commission were in attendance in full uniform including weapons. The fully armed rangers, with 1 at each exit, attracted comments from some attendees to the press following the meeting.

OCCB president Royd Chambers chose to recognize the special nature of the attendees and moved the item to the front of the business agenda. Steffens repeated her concerns that OCCB continue its mission to advance outdoor recreation and nature education going forward. John Farrell stated that the consensus of his board was, “no horse traffic on any Hunting grounds in O’Brien County.” He also noted that ground next to the Prairie Heritage Center (PHC) was their privately owned land. O’Brien County Conservation Board staff manages the privately owned land. Payment for services was not addressed.

Sportsmen’s Club raises money through various activities and donates the money to OCCB to assist with land acquisition. They raise up to 25% cost share to purchase property. Supervisor Dennis Vanden Hul asked what percentage of purchase Sportsmen’s Club pays for certain use rules to take effect. OCCB director Terry Boltjes replied, “Anyone who chips in can have access. Several purchase programs deny equestrian uses, while Iowa law provides 10 exceptions to those rules, according to Vanden Hul.”

Discussion of how much of the land and for how much time (outside of Hunting seasons) was dedicated to non-Hunting activities. Hiking and bird watching were noted as additional activities on conservation land. One ranger added, “at your own risk.” Farrell stated, “the land needs to rest,” [following a Hunting season]. Cross Country skiing was also cited as an activity on conservation lands. Boltjes informed the board and the audience that an equestrian trail had been created at Dog Creek some time ago, “but no one used it.” Steffens responded that she had, but was unsure if she should.

More discussion revealed the conservation board has small pieces of leased land. It was asked why those parcels couldn’t be used for equestrian activities. Amber Wetherell, Assistant Director expressed opposition to the idea. A discussion of the sufficiency of the small pieces being used for obstacles ended with board member Sherri Bootsma saying, “even small, we can put up obstacles for equestrian exercises,” pushing back against an outright rejection of a need for a large assortment of equestrian obstacles. Chambers then ended the discussion noting that the equestrian issue would remain on the agenda and that statistics for equestrian and bicycling would be dug up to reach a conclusion. He also said, “it would be good to find something for all enthusiasts.”

Brian Schimmer, Operations Director for OCCB said that no one has come to Terry’s office to ask him any questions adding that Terry would answer questions about OCCB. An interview with Boltjes had been set but was canceled by Boltjes. Two more requests had been made and both were "respectfully declined."

During the business meeting Bootsma was very pleased to report that revenue from Douma Park camping fees were up 430%, year over year. The board also discussed an offer to purchase land near hartley on the Clay/O’Brien County line. The board decided it was overpriced. The board also approved participating in the Beaver Bounty program with O’Brien County again this year. It will be active November 7, 2020 through April 15, 2021 or until budgeted funds run out.

Following the meeting Chambers was asked about the personnel changes. He replied by saying they tried to switch some duties around, “to take some work away.” He described former Assistant Director and County Naturalist Charlene Elyea as, “dedicating a lot more time than probably healthy,” to her work. When asked about the process to fill the Assistant Director position he said that Amber Wetherell was doing a “phenomenal job” and that they thought she has the skill sets that would fit. He continued, “We continue the search to find a Naturalist who can be as good as Charlene was.” He described the mindset of the board as having no intention to allow the Naturalist programming to diminish. They will continue excellent Naturalist programming and new ways to serve the people of the county and area. He went on, “We have the best conservation team. They do phenomenal work and are very passionate about conservation and parks. O’Brien County Conservation Board has more recreational options than most other counties.

A brief review of recent OCCB minutes revealed discussion of the job changes did not show up on the minutes prior to July 8, 2020. A closed meeting was offered and declined. According to the July 8, 2020 minutes “the board expressed their desire to retain all current staff. Job duties will be adjusted in an effort to improve the working environment.” On a motion by Bootsma seconded by (Jack) Wallinga, Amber Wetherell will be the Assistant Director and Charlene Elyea will be the Naturalist. Pay for the Assistant Director shall be $47,000 beginning July 9, 2020, and raised to $51,000 beginning January 1, 2021. Pay for the Naturalist shall be $51,000 beginning July 9, 2020 and the raise in pay that Elyea was to receive on January 1, 2021 shall be null and void. Job duties for each position are attached, Motion carried. No recruiting effort for either position had been done by OCCB up to July 8, 2020.

On Saturday September 12 Assistant Conservation Board Director Amber Wetherell declined any comment about her current job description including all questions about how she would carry out specifically listed tasks. She also could not provide either of the preceding job descriptions for either the Naturalist position or the Assistant Director position. Wetherell did suggest that the newspaper investigate Little Sioux Valley Conservation Association, making several remarks toward specific LSVCA board members.


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