Monday, March 13, 2017

An open letter to Johnny Morris… In response to News Release

This week from the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

JEFFERSON CITY • Robert Ziehmer left his job as director of the Missouri Department of Conservation more than seven months ago, but his paychecks from the state haven’t stopped coming.
        According to state payroll records, Ziehmer already has received more than $87,000 from the state for doing no work. And every two weeks, he gets $5,800 more. And, despite working for a foundation connected to outdoor retailing giant Bass Pro Shops, the former chief of an agency that oversees fish and wildlife qualifies for state health insurance coverage. Lawmakers who are reviewing the proposed state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 have begun raising red flags about the payouts to Ziehmer, which were not disclosed when he departed last year after nearly three decades at the department.
         “I don’t approve of it,” said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, who chairs the House Budget Committee. “It seems like something that should not have happened.”
         The payouts to Ziehmer come as the Legislature and Gov. Eric Greitens are crafting a budget that could reduce services to thousands of low-income seniors and disabled people and will not offer raises to state workers, who are the worst paid in the nation.
According to documents obtained by the Post-Dispatch, the money is the result of a separation and release agreement between the former director and the Missouri Conservation Commission, which oversees the Missouri Department of Conservation.
         The agreement appears to address concerns by the commission that Ziehmer might take legal action if they tried to push him out of the top job after six years at the helm. It remains unclear why that may have occurred.
         “To ensure an amicable parting, the parties wish to compromise, resolve and settle, finally and forever, any claims and causes of action that were or could have been asserted by the employee against MDC,” the agreement notes.
The agreement allows Ziehmer to be paid for his accrued leave and receive health insurance from the state until his paid leave time runs out. Fitzpatrick estimated that could come in May, which would give Ziehmer almost an entire year of his salary. It wasn’t immediately clear from the documents how the deal might affect Ziehmer’s pension.
         In the agreement, both sides said the pact should not be construed as an admission of liability or wrongdoing.
“MDC expressly denies any such liability, wrongdoing or responsibility,” the agreement notes.
         Marilyn Bradford, chairwoman of the commission, signed off on the agreement. She did not immediately return messages Friday.
Unlike other state agencies facing funding cuts this year, the Department of Conservation budget is not being reduced, largely because it receives its funding from a special tax approved by voters in 1976. The one-eighth of one percent sales tax collected by the state is dedicated to conservation efforts. The agency’s budget is expected to top $154 million next year.
         The department is not controlled directly by the governor. Rather, the governor appoints four commissioners to six-year terms. The current board, which approved Ziehmer’s separation agreement, was appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon.
         Ziehmer, who signed the agreement on June 1, 2016, now works for the Johnny Morris Foundation, an organization with $63.8 million in assets connected to the Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro Shops.
         Ziehmer, who could not be reached for comment, was the eighth director of the conservation agency since its founding in 1937. In that role, he was paid $140,000 annually to oversee a staff of 1,450 full-time and 500 hourly employees.
         During his tenure, he led restoration activities for elk, prairie chickens and other species, and oversaw the renovation of fish hatcheries and shooting ranges.
         Soon after Ziehmer’s departure, the Conservation Commission selected former Department of Natural Resources Director Sara Parker Pauley as the first female director of the Department of Conservation.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to correct the year voters approved a tax for the Missouri Department of Conservation. 
Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181
@KurtEricksonPD on Twitter
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