The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission in a special-called meeting Wednesday unanimously passed a motion to appoint and declare Rich Storm as Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the latest in a months-long dispute between the commission and Democrat Governor Andy Beshear’s administration over a contract extension for Storm.
The commission also unanimously passed separate motions to enter into a memorandum of agreement with Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron to initiate any legal proceedings to vindicate the commission’s appointment, including a potential appeal to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.
“At each turn, the administration has thwarted our efforts, I believe in an undue attempt to exert political influence over the commission, and to ultimately access departmental funds,” said commission chair Karl Clinard. “The administration, including the Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet, the Finance and Administration Cabinet and their secretaries, have sown discord and dysfunction.”
The commission is made up of volunteers from around the state to advise the department and commissioner on decisions regarding the conservation of wildlife and natural resources. The dispute between the commission and Beshear’s administration began when the Finance and Administration Cabinet did not sign off on a two-year contract extension approved by the commission in its January meeting.
WKMS previously reported a spokesperson for the Beshear administration said it offered Storm a one-year contract instead, due to financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Storm told the Bowling Green Daily News that he saw the one-year contract as an attempt to shorten his tenure and gain more control over the department, and did not sign the one-year contract. He has since had his paychecks stopped by the Beshear administration and is not currently in the commissioner role, according to the newspaper.
State lawmakers also sent a letter to Beshear, asking him to respect the commission’s decision to approve a two-year contract. The commission asserts it has the sole power to hire a commissioner, citing Kentucky Revised Statutes that state the commission has the power to appoint and reappoint a commissioner. But Beshear in a Wednesday press conference refuted the commission’s accusations and arguments.
“It is really silly to say that we’re trying to pick off somebody when we approved a one year, $140,000 contract during the highest level of unemployment in my lifetime,” Beshear said. “It’s also silly to suggest that this group with its past should have absolutely no oversight and gets to make all of its financial decisions that simply have to be signed off by a cabinet of state government that is responsible for spending every dollar of public funds wisely.”
Beshear said the Finance and Administration Cabinet has the power under state law to approve or disapprove contracts of commissioners, and that his administration wants to hold accountable all public funding. Beshear referenced a 2018 audit by Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Mike Harmon of the department that cited several examples of poorly-maintained documentation and misuse of funds, including using public funds received from hunting licenses fees to pay for awards banquets. In a press release associated with that audit, the Republican auditor called for a “change in culture.”
Beshear said even though the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources receives no General Fund tax dollars, the funds received from license fees gathered by the department warrant accountability. He added he expects legal action moving forward.
During the commission’s virtual meeting, Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet General Counsel Sarah Cronan asked commission chair Karl Clinard whether there had been a violation of the state Open Meetings Act with potential discussion outside the public meeting, given that the motions were passed with little to no discussion among the commission.
State law mandates all meetings of public bodies with a quorum of members, or a series of meetings that could collectively total a quorum of members, discussing matters of public business be considered public meetings.
Clinard said while he could not speak for other commission members, he doesn’t believe anyone on the commission has spoken with more than “maybe one other individual” and not constituting a quorum.