Barron letter takes aim at Conservation District

ESCANABA — The Delta County Board of Commissioners skipped over an agenda item related to a letter to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) about Delta Conservation District Chair Joe Kaplan and the conservation district’s administration of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) Tuesday, but not before one commissioner objected to the letter’s contents.

“I didn’t think there was any point of beating it to death. I mean, that was something Commissioner (Bob) Barron had brought forward, and I think we had talked about it enough, and so I just thought that there was no other action needed on it,” Board Chair Dave Moyle said of his decision to skip over the agenda item about the letter.

The letter was briefly discussed during a presentation on MAEAP by Former Delta Conservation District CEO Rory Mattson, who was asked by Moyle to discuss the MAEAP program after a representative from MDARD was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting. During the discussion, Commissioner Steve Viau drew attention to the letter drafted by Barron included in the board packet.

“This letter is important, and it’s a negative connotation on how the board is moving forward, and I think it has to do… I don’t know if we’re feuding with the conservation district — not saying the whole board or the whole conservation district board, but there’s a whole lot of personal (innuendos) that I don’t know if you can substantiate them to be true because they’re opinions. They’re actually opinions,” said Viau.

The letter, which is the result of a motion approved by the board at the April 29 county board meeting, takes aim specifically at Conservation District Board Chair Joe Kaplan and, to some extent, Kaplan’s wife, Christine Williams, who will be running against Barron in the August primary on the Republican ticket.

“There is no doubt in the commissioners who voted to send this letter of complaint that CD chair Kaplan and his wife are using the CD board for their own personal agenda reasons and local political ambitions,” Barron wrote.

Primarily, the letter echoes statements made at past meetings that Kaplan had violated the confidentiality provisions of the MAEAP program and was discriminating against the county by directing a conservation district employee to only work on county projects if approved by Kaplan. Both claims are disputed.

At the April 30 board meeting, Delta County Administrator Ashleigh Young told the commissioners she had reached out to MDARD and was informed that Kaplan was able to review MAEAP plan documents and discuss them with landowners. In the county’s case, that meant that discussions Kaplan had with Young about the county’s plans were not a confidentiality breach, as Young represented the county. Mattson reaffirmed the conversations did not constitute a breach Tuesday.

The claims of discrimination have also been contested. Following an email sent by Young to Kaplan on April 26, which asked Kaplan if the conservation district board of directors had “given direction to the MAEAP technician to restrict Delta County’s access to MAEAP resources,” the technician sent a letter stating the contrary.

“… the Delta Conservation District Board of Directors, specifically Chair Kaplan has not directed me to seek permission before supporting the county in MAEAP activities, should assistance be requested. I hope I have addressed Delta County’s Board of Commissioner’s concerns and that you continue to be a valued partner in MAEAP,” MAEAP Technician for the Conservation District Holly Moss wrote in her letter received by the county Tuesday.

Barron’s letter argues Kaplan telling Young a planned project at Fuller Park would violate the county’s MAEAP agreement was part of a long-term effort by Kaplan and Williams to stop the project. He also requested MDARD investigate the treatment of conservation district employees by Kaplan and the new conservation district board.

“We also realize that good loyal employees of the CD are treated terribly by the new CD board of directors, and we are sure that you are aware of some of these instances (for their sake please investigate this issue more thoroughly, as you are the only agency that can),” wrote Barron.

The assertion employees were mistreated likely comes from the resignation letters of Former District Forester Lyndsey Robinson, who described a “difficult and toxic work environment,” and Former District Manager Heather LeDuc, who described the conservation district atmosphere as “persistent harassment, micro-management, ‘witch hunts’ and ‘personal vendettas.'” Both letters have repeatedly appeared in county board packets.

As of Tuesday’s meeting, the letter had not been sent to MDARD. Moyle told the Daily Press Thursday that he had signed the letter and directed it to be sent. Moyle, Barron and Commissioner Bob Petersen were removed by a recall election Tuesday, the results of which were announced after the meeting was over. At the time of the signature and Moyle’s direction to send the letter, Moyle, Barron, and Commissioner Bob Petersen were all seated commissioners.


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