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Environmental Trust identifies concerns

Environmental Trust identifies concerns

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The Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, a group formed recently to support the Nebraska Environmental Trust, has identified several areas of concern about the Trust Board’s management of the $20 million annually in grants from the Trust, according to Friends group chair Chris Beutler.

“Our group members, like most Nebraskans, expect state government to be fair and transparent and to follow state law and good governance practices,” Beutler explained. “We have five former Trust Board members in our Friends group, as well as the Governor who created the Trust, and they are all very disturbed by recent Board actions.”

Concerns include actions taken by the Trust Board without majority votes, failure to adhere to the point system used to award grants, an erosion of the independence of the Trust Board members, refusal to allow landowners to act as they think best to protect their land, and funding grants that provide more private gain than public benefit.

The Trust Board includes nine citizens appointed by the governor for six-year terms and five state agency heads who serve at the pleasure of the governor. In February the Board voted, with little discussion, to disregard the recommendations of its grants committee and instead preliminarily approved funding that ultimately will go to private gas station owners to allow them to install pumps and storage tanks for ethanol-blended fuels. The rationale given was that increased use of ethanol-blended fuels would improve air quality. Public comments overwhelmingly opposed the decision, but the Board gave final approval to the re-directed funding in June.

“The Board’s actions concern those of us who are former Board members for several reasons,” notes Gail Yanney. “Both in February and June the Board approved grant funding with only seven affirmative votes. With 14 Board members total, eight votes should be required for Board action. During the June meeting the votes were recorded on paper ballots. Beyond saying the grants were approved, there was no public disclosure during the meeting and nothing included in the Board minutes to allow us to see how each Board member voted. In addition to failing good governance transparency obligations, we question whether this year’s funding is legally approved.”

Former Board Chair Lynn Roper added, “Initial review of the minutes indicates sporadic attendance at quarterly Board meetings as well as Board members present for only a portion of meetings. We have a concern that Board members are not committed to investing sufficient time for proper fiduciary responsibility in granting $20 million annually.”

Former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Ben Nelson said, “In September 1991 I took a listening tour around Nebraska. I was really struck by the interest in preserving and enhancing Nebraska’s environment. There was a clear need for funding for projects, and thus the concept for the Environmental Trust was born. As part of this unique creation, we wanted a citizen-dominated board to serve as trustees of the funds and projects, with a few state government agency heads to serve as partners and advisors.”

“We took our roles as trustees of the public’s funds and interests very seriously,” adds former Board Chair Gerry Lauritzen. “In addition to being required by statute, most of us considered it a moral obligation to act in the best interests of Nebraska’s citizens and environment.”

Lauritzen was originally appointed to the Trust Board by former Governor Dave Heineman, and then wanted to be reappointed to a second term in 2019. “It’s the Governor’s choice who’s appointed and Board members serve at his pleasure. However, we still have the obligations of trusteeship, and the current Governor and I weren’t in agreement on my need to vote as my conscience dictated. So, I was not reappointed to a second term. We’re very concerned about political pressure eroding the independent judgment that’s the obligation of citizen Board members.”

“Another concern is the Board’s apparent disregard of the statutorily-mandated grant evaluation process which uses a point system to rank all grants. The point system isn’t perfect, but it ensures that each grant is evaluated the same way so that the best grants are funded. It guards against decisions based on personal or political preferences of Board members,” explained former Board Chair Susan Seacrest, who also served as chair of the grants committee.

“In the past the Board sometimes made minor adjustments to recommendations from the grants committee. But this year the Board made significant changes to the recommendations of the grants committee without publicly and fully explaining why. In addition to being unprecedented in the Trust’s 27-year history, the actions created distrust in the grant process. Grant applicants aren’t entitled to a grant, but they are entitled to a fair process. This year’s grant process failed the applicants and the public,” Seacrest continued.

“The statutes are clear that public Trust funds should not be used for private gain,” commented Roper. “It appears the ethanol pumps grant will primarily benefit private businesses. If the pumps will be profitable for the owners, they should pay for them. In fact, the statutes prohibit funding projects the beneficiaries can pay for themselves.”

“The statues also prohibit using Trust funds to meet government mandates. If we’re concerned about meeting federal air quality mandates, then state and local governments should be addressing these concerns,” Roper continued.

Former Board member Dayle Williamson was among the first agency directors to serve on the Trust Board. He was Director of the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission.

“Those of us who were agency directors were very familiar with the Trust purposes and statutes and supported the environmental mission. We recognized the importance of preserving land to address many of the Trusts priorities, including habitat, water quality, soil health, scenic values and others. I’ve been surprised and disappointed to see current agency directors oppose land acquisition and permanent conservation easements,” Williamson noted. Four of this year’s highest ranked grant applications were not funded by the Board, despite being recommended by the grants committee. Each of the four included land acquisition and/or a conservation easement.

Williamson owns farmland in central Nebraska, some of which he’s placed under conservation easement. “I see conservation easements as a way for farmers and ranchers to act in ways they see best for the future of their land, and often for their families. The Trust should not create rules that interfere with landowners’ property rights. Conservation easements may be one of the best ways to keep ag lands from being developed or split up, in addition to meeting many environmental goals,” Williamson continued.

Helping the Trust Board stay true to the mission and statutes of the Trust is the primary purpose of the new Friends group, according to Beutler. “Our group seeks to work with the Board to encourage public involvement with the Trust and adherence to the statutes and good governance practices. We also strongly encourage all Nebraskans who care about the Trust to express their opinions. The Trust Board will be holding listening sessions in the next few weeks. Those sessions will be great opportunities to let the Trust Board know what Nebraskans value.”

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