Monday, December 19, 2005
By BILL BARROW
MONTGOMERY -- Over the last nine years, the Alabama Forestry Commission, under the direction of veteran State Forester Timothy Boyce, has doled out at least $2.6 million in grants to organizations affiliated with the commissioners who control his job, according to state spending records and several commission members.
And the commission, in a divided vote carried by the members whose organizations have received the grant money, earlier this year changed its bylaws to require a unanimous vote -- instead of a simple majority -- to remove either Boyce or his deputy.
Those issues, along with a July consultant survey indicating that the agency's employees broadly lack confidence in its leadership, lie at the center of an ongoing dispute between two commission factions.
The agency, with more than 300 workers in four regional offices and its Montgomery headquarters, manages state forests, assists private landowners, facilitates public awareness of environmental issues and enforces timber laws and regulations.
While it may have a low profile politically, it manages an annual budget of nearly $30 million, including millions of dollars in federally supported grants that the commission distributes. For years, Boyce and his staff -- not the seven commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate -- have wielded primary control over the money.
Among the grants that have been called into question by some commissioners:
The Alabama Treasure Forest Association has received $1.9 million since 1996. Gary Fortenberry, past president of the association, and a member of its board, was appointed to the Forestry Commission in November 1996 by Gov. Fob James, and now serves as its chairman. The Treasure Forest Association received $10,000 in 1996. The grants increased to at least $100,000 each year from 1997 to 1999, and the group has received at least $213,000 in each year since 2000.
Dennis and DeVos, who are part of the four-member majority on the commission, say that the grants have funded good programs and have nothing to do with anyone's ties to the recipients.
Dennis pointed out that volunteer fire departments serve 80 percent of the land area in Alabama.
DeVos said he doesn't influence the Wildlife Federation's decision to apply for the money or the Forestry Commission's decisions to dispense it. "Those decisions are made at the staff level," he said. "At neither place do I have a say over any of that. From my standpoint, the grants they pick up were in place long before my involvement with the Forestry Commission."
Efforts to reach Fortenberry over the last several weeks were not successful.
Those in the three-member minority counter that there is at least some inherent conflict. Further, they say that the commission functions as an advisory or oversight panel with little real authority. That, they said, allows a caucus of members to operate separately from the full board and unduly influence the actions of the state forester and his staff.
"We need to change something," said Commissioner Jett Freeman of Spanish Fort, a member of the minority. "It's just something I'm not proud of as a statewide organization. ... Something just smells funny."
Freeman said, "The state forester just does what he wants to do, and as long as he's got the support of these commissioners to run hog wild, he can do that."
Freeman, a retired International Paper executive appointed by Gov. Bob Riley in 2004, said commissioners earlier this year did adopt one new policy he proposed. It requires Boyce and the staff to bring grants to the commission for approval. That will be tested at the commission's next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 19.
Freeman said he also wants a more stringent auditing process in which grant recipients and subrecipients report back to commission members. (An example of a subrecipient would be an individual volunteer fire department receiving money from its state organization.)
Since 2001, the Alabama Association of Volunteer Fire Departments has received at least $380,600, with a low of $50,000 in 2004 and a high of $150,000 in 2001. Johnny Dennis, a longtime officer in the volunteer fire association, was appointed to the Forestry Commission in 2000 by Gov. Don Siegelman. In the four years prior to Dennis' appointment, the association received $10,500, according to records from the state comptroller.
Since 2001, the Alabama Wildlife Federation has received at least $381,000, with a low of $53,300 in 2004 and a high of $103,000 through October of this year. Ted DeVos, an officer in the federation, was appointed by Siegelman to the Forestry Commission in November 2000. The federation received $67,500 in 1999 and $95,500 in 2000.
According to an audit of the commission released Friday by the Examiners of Public Accounts, existing policy already requires that grant recipients monitor subrecipients to ensure that money is "used for authorized purposes in compliance with the laws, regulations, and the provisions of contracts or grant agreements, and that performance goals are achieved."
But the audit, which covers the period from Oct. 1, 2001 to Sept. 30, 2004, stated that out of 30 grant agreements reviewed by examiners, there were nine for which reports from subrecipients were late or not received at all.
Boyce did not respond to telephone messages left with commission staff members in recent weeks. Boyce, who assumed his post in September 1992, earns $109,000 annually, according to the most recent information on file with the State Personnel Department.
Dennis, a volunteer fireman in Lauderdale County, said Boyce and the upper management of the commission perform as well as possible, considering budget cuts that have reduced the agency's staff considerably over the last decade.
"The morale of a lot of state agencies is a problem," said Dennis. "When you have these kinds of cuts in state funding, you have cuts from employees. That becomes a problem in two areas: You're not able to be doing everything you want to do and you've got a greater workload on the people still there."
He continued, "I've heard many of the complaints about the commission. I've met with many of the employees. Some of (the complaints) are valid. ... Many of them are not."
The Alabama Forestry Commission was created by the Legislature in 1924. Forests make up about 22 million of Alabama's 32 million acres, and paper and forestry products comprise the state's largest manufacturing industry, producing about $13 billion in annual economic impact.
Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms, but are not seated until confirmed by the Senate. Once confirmed, they remain on the panel until a successor is appointed and confirmed. According to state law, members are paid $25 per day for meetings or official business, plus reimbursement for expenses incurred in their official capacity.
Two commissioners must be registered foresters and three must be Alabama timberland owners. The remaining two seats have no requirements attached. That leaves several interests to compete for influence over the nomination and confirmation process. Those interests include small landowners; large landowners, industrial and private; the Alabama Forestry Association, a lobbying group for timber owners; volunteer fire departments and other agencies that receive grant money; senators looking to reward supporters with political appointments; and the state forester himself. State law mandates that the commission meet at least twice yearly; those meetings typically occur in January and July. But the law prescribes few specific duties, and members interviewed by the Mobile Register said that the commission in recent years has not approved an agency budget or specific spending requests.
Rather, commissioners said Boyce has presented budgetary updates, usually in the form of quarterly financial statements, as well as information about specific grants upon commissioners' requests.
The conflict over staffing issues and grants has surfaced during the most recent meetings, commissioners said, particularly after two Riley appointees -- Freeman and Don Heath of Hoover --assumed their seats in 2004.
Heath, who manages timberland for AmSouth Bank's trust division, said he noticed at his first meeting that the financial information given to the commissioners "made it difficult to get a real financial picture of where we were at."
Heath said he was surprised to learn that most of the panel's official votes concern land transactions, not larger fiscal decisions. "There should be some oversight by this group in the budgetary process and some oversight of running the organization," he said.
Also, at one of their first commission meetings, Heath and Freeman said commissioners discussed with Boyce alleged discontent among staff members. Boyce responded by seeking an outsider's review of the staff. Fortenberry, the commission chairman from Ward, later appointed an ad hoc committee to study potential changes, according to Freeman, Heath and DeVos.
Consultants from the Auburn University Montgomery Center for Government spent three months interviewing staff members in person and compiling surveys made available to all of the agency's 322 employees. They conducted 34 interviews; 224 employees completed "usable" surveys. The results were presented to board members in July in a 30-page document.
Generally, the study found loyal employees who enjoy their work but are dissatisfied with the commission's direction and "leadership team," defined in the survey as including the state forester, assistant state forester, division directors and regional foresters.
48 percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable recommending a friend to work at the commission. But 59 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that "the mission and goals of AFC are moving the organization in the right direction," and 69 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the following statement, "The organizational structure of AFC contributes to the effective management of the organization."
70 percent agreed that their workload is manageable, while more than half said they are satisfied with their jobs. But 70 percent also said that the leadership team communicates poorly. "This is one area in need of immediate attention," the report states.
62 percent of employees surveyed said they do not trust the leadership team to make decisions in the best interest of the organization; 52 percent said they do not respect the leadership team; and 65 percent reported that they do not believe they can share organizational concerns with the leadership team without "fear of getting in trouble."
During the same July meeting where the AUM consultants presented their report, Fortenberry's ad hoc committee of the commission recommended bylaws changes.
Freeman and Heath said the recommendation on changing the hiring and firing procedure for the forester and assistant forester came as a complete surprise.
Freeman said he asked Fortenberry, "Where did this come from?"
"Nobody would admit to it," Freeman recalled. "Not anybody on the commission. Not the state forester. It was just out there."
The measure was adopted 4-2, with Fortenberry, DeVos, and Dennis all in the majority. They were joined by Vice Chairman Jerry Lacey of Fayette.
When asked recently who first proposed the change, Dennis said, "I'm not going to comment on that. The decision was made, it is over and done with. ... It is certainly legal, and there are other state agencies who have done the same thing."
DeVos said he does not know who proposed the idea but he explained his vote this way, "I think it adds some stability to the state forester's position." DeVos make reference to "outside pressure" regarding Boyce's job status from industrial and large landowners who he said sometimes conflict with smaller, less-powerful interests. He declined to name any individual or organization specifically.
Continue to serve
At the time, both DeVos and Dennis were attending what could have been their final commission meeting. Their terms expired in November, but senators earlier this year failed to give a final floor vote to Riley's nominees to replace them. The two men will continue to serve until their successors are nominated and confirmed.
DeVos and Dennis each said they have notified the governor's office that they would like another term. Riley spokesman Jeff Emerson said last week that the governor has not decided on whether to re-submit his previous nominees when the Legislature convenes for its annual session next month.
Freeman said he and other commissioners in the minority have no plans to get involved in the confirmation process. But he said those decisions will dictate the direction of the commission.
"I don't think anything is going to change until the governor appoints new commissioners who are willing to have an open mind," he said.
"Now, we can't do anything," he continued, noting that even the recent change that requires commission-approval of grants is toothless with the current composition of the group. "You've got commissioners who've got an indirect benefit, so we're in a losing cause."
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