Monday, December 27, 2010

UPDATED ODNR defends time off during deer gun season for indicted Wildlife officials

With their court cases still pending, four of the five felony-indicted Ohio Division of Wildlife officials took time off during the recent state-wide firearms deer-hunting season.

With permission from the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

It was the ODNR’s director Shawn Logan who Nov. 10 took the indicted officials off a several-months-long period of paid administrative leave which cost the agency about $250,000.

Logan’s expressed reasons for bringing the officials back was two-fold: First, because the upcoming firearms deer season is the Wildlife Division’s most intense and extensively administered activity.

The second reason that Logan stressed was the impending transition from the current Strickland Administration to the one being assembled by governor-elect John Kasich.

Among those who took time off during the seven-day firearms deer-hunting season were Wildlife Division chief David Graham; assistant chief Randy Miller (and who will retire at the end of this month); Todd Haines, District 5 (southwest Ohio) director; and the agency’s human resources manager, Michelle Ward-Tackett.

Not taking off any time during gun deer week was the agency’s law enforcement administrator James Lehman.

“Obviously, overall, this was one of the safest gun seasons we had without any fatalities so we were able to accommodate the leave requests,” said ODNR spokesman Mike Shelton.

Asked how the department could know ahead of time whether the gun season would prove safe or not, Shelton responded by saying that the administration took into account whether someone else was available to serve as a short-term administrator.

“It’s a mater of being able to look at the time requested,” Shelton said. “If there was someone who could fill the roll for the requested time off then we could accommodate the request.”

The other reason for bringing back the indicted officials was to help with the transition and also because the court case had “reached a sensitive stopping point,” Shelton said.

As for whether allowing the time off makes either the indicted officials or the department look bad, Shelton said that “...folks don’t understand how we need to accommodate time off during that week.”

Fact is, Shelton said, all Wildlife Division employees - from a county wildlife officer up to the chief - cannot pull round-the-clock duty, not even during the uber-busy firearms deer-hunting season when up to 420,000 people are afield.

“From a lay person’s standpoint these people weren’t there when they should be but there were appropriate staffing in place,” Shelton said. “And had they still been on paid administrative leave it would have been difficult to accommodate time off for other division employees.”

A good example of this protocol, says Shelton, was Lehman who did not take time off during the deer gun season.

“As the law enforcement head he’d be the first responder into the field had there been a problem,” Shelton said.

Shelton said as well that Allen Wright, state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County, did not use any leave time "...(vacation, personal, sick, cost savings days, etc.)" during deer gun season.

It is Wright who is at the center of the legal-related matter, though charges against him were dropped by a special prosecutor assigned to the case. This prosecutor has said, however, that he intends to independently investigate Wright and possibly present his ultimate findings to a Brown County Grand Jury.

"As for whether any employees hunted with Officer Wright – I do not know, and employees are not compelled to describe what they do on their private time or who they spend it with," Shelton wrote in an e-mail today. "So, that’s not a question I would be able to answer."

This Outdoors Blog posting may be updated as additional information becomes available. Check back periodically for any changes that might appear.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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