Thursday, December 22, 2005
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: A year of good and bad for the DGIF
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
On Christmas Day a year ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch broke the story that public money had been used to fund a hunting expedition to Africa for high-ranking Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) officials. After that, things got worse for the department. A 52-page report by the state internal auditor revealed waste, cronyism, misuse of state funds and property, fuzzy thinking and retaliation against employees who were outside the increasingly autocratic leadership.
In a year’s time, many things have happened. Here is a look at what has been accomplished, the work in progress, and my take on the heroes and the disappointments:
* Board Chairman Daniel Hoffler resigned under pressure and Executive Director Bill Woodfin was force out.
* The media assigned special reporters who did good investigative work that provided important front-page coverage of an agency that normally is assigned to the back pages, if it received any coverage at all.
* The gag was removed between board members and their constituents and board members and staff. The e-mails of board members were published and board members began to freely express their thoughts and concerns during public meetings.
* Fiscal responsibility was restored with a new system of checks-and-balances.
* Two top wardens who were part of the autocratic leadership were placed on leave.
* A state police investigation of possible criminal actions by DGIF employees is ongoing.
* Morale of DGIF employees has enjoyed a sharp improvement.
* A governance policy has been adopted that answers many of the abuses outlined in the auditor’s report. It defines the powers and duties of the board and strengthens the relationship between the secretary of natural resources and the DGIF director and board.
* Compliance of the Freedom of Information Act is taken seriously.
* Will McNeely, a board member who was an avowed Woodfin supporter, resigned.
* Col. W. Gerald Massengill, a former state police superintendent who came out of retirement at the governor’s request in May to head the DGIF as interim director. Massengill is an excellent administrator and — most important — a man of integrity. He was quick to recognize the problems and needs of a department that was new to him. He is a good listener and is not afraid to wade into potentially hostile environments where he performs admirably.
* Lee and Paulette Albright, an unassuming couple from Nelson County, who smelled something fishy at DGIF and made it public by spending heavily out of their own pockets and taking considerable abuse.
* Leon Turner, a former DGIF board chairman from Botetourt County, who lined up many of his peers to call for the resignation of Hoffler and Woodfin.
* David Whitehurst, a DGIF staff member, who skillfully researched and wrote much of the new governance manual.
* Loyal DGIF staff members who labored under duress to accomplish the mission of the agency while their top leadership marched off in selfish pursuits.
* Certain board members who formed committees and contributed major chunks of personal time to formulate policies and procedures that should keep the DGIF focused and on course for years to come.
WORKS IN PROGRESS:
* The search for a new executive director, with an announcement scheduled March 21.
* The realignment of the rank-heavy warden force, including the pending appointment of a new colonel.
* The slowness of a report from the State Police Investigation, which has left dangling the discipline of employees cited in the auditor’s report and is causing some constituents to murmur "cover up."
* The major organizations and individuals that went well beyond what is reasonable by publicly backing Woodfin even after it had become evident that the man was bringing great harm to the agency.
* Needed DGIF funding initiatives that have had to be sidetracked.
* A board that sat mute while spending practices were abused and a dictatorial leadership was established.
* The $77,000 severance bonus that Woodfin received when he was fired.
* The remnant of board members, staff and outdoorsmen who continue to maintain a defensive attitude toward Woodfin, a fact that slows the healing progress and divides the constituents.
* The threat that the General Assembly will remove the board’s authority to hire and fire the executive director and give that power to the governor, thus adding another layer of political influence over outdoor issues.