2011 marked a new wave of attacks on existing environmental laws, rules and requirements that reasonably protect our environment. It surely seemed that some people wanted to go backwards and ignore the protective safeguards that many of us fought for.
This might have made a good retrospective piece on an end-of-the-year focus. However, I want to focus on a decision made ten days before Christmas by the Minnesota Speaker of the House. It hits closer to home because a nonpartisan staffer, like I was when working over there, was summarily dismissed for seemingly no reason at all but politics.
Susan Thornton, the staff director of the Legislative Citizen-Commission on Minnesota Resources, was told shortly before the holidays that she was being let go because the LCCMR wanted to “move in a different direction.” As staff director, Susan is supposed to help implement the direction of the commission, after it’s members devise a six-year strategic plan and a two-year request for proposals to recommend project funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
The LCCMR members, ten legislators from the House and Senate, and seven citizen members, decide on the direction the commission wants to concentrate on. Susan, who has worked there for 22 years, and four years as the director, has always been a loyal employee and is respected by the environment and natural resources community. I worked with the commission legislation each year, and always found Susan to be highly professional, competent, nonpartisan, and caring and committed to the recommended funding projects.
Neither the full commission, nor their executive committee, was consulted or asked about Susan’s abrupt termination before it happened. There was no performance review found lacking, or any known justifiable cause to terminate her. She seemingly is an innocent victim of an attempt to make the LCCMR more political in how it recommends projects.
There is a legal question on whether the House Speaker has the authority to do what he did. The LCCMR statutes clearly state that the commission is in charge of hiring the director and other staff. There seems to be no statute that allows any legislative leader alone to dismiss a nonpartisan joint House-Senate commission staff person.
Some speculation has emerged that the Speaker, and a couple of House members of the LCCMR, want to give the staff director’s job to a former legislator from their own party. This could be the start of making the whole LCCMR process very political, and not always based on good science and research. The commission has been in existence since 1963, funding 3/4 of a billion dollars of projects that benefit our environment and natural resources. As we move into it’s 50th year of doing so, it would be tragic if the legacy of the LCCMR devolved into solely political decisions.