Saturday, February 7, 2015

UPDATED Death appears imminent for a stand-alone Ohio Division of Watercraft

A hurried job of rehabilitating the fourth floor of Building C on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ sprawling Fountain Square campus this past week may be insightful regarding whether the Watercraft Division remains a stand-alone agency or if it will be gobbled up by its much larger sibling: the Ohio Division of Parks and Preserves.

Already the Parks and Preserves Division has successfully feasted on the former Natural Areas and Preserves Division, swallowing the latter whole but leaving behind a few crumbs largely staffed by retired former DNAP officials.

And Forestry’s once small tribe of commissioned officers has also seen its law enforcement-entitled personnel now wearing Parks and Preserves Division uniforms.

With neither fanfare nor explanation the Watercraft Division as a stand-alone departmental unit appears to be sailing toward mothballing, its assets controlled by Parks and its personnel shoehorned into the latter’s existing brick-and-mortar regional homes.

Of concern to Watercraft Division watchers is how the politically appointed ODNR - and even Parks - officials will handle the vitally important Waterways Safety Fund.

That concern has begun to liven Ohio's boating constituency.  Their concern - as it is for other tribes whose interests fall under the spell of other departmental divisions - is how the chief of command continues to fail to keep fellow travelers in the loop.

When the Natural Resources Department began efforts at consolidation it never bothered to explain it all o the Waterways Safety Council. And though this group of volunteers is an advisory body only without the regulatory muscle of the Ohio Wildlife Council, Waterways Safety Council members were still (and understandably so) miffed by the ODNR's lack of sensitivity, sources say as well.

Even more worrisome, some of these sources say, is to whether ODNR officials also are greedy enough to eye the Wildlife Division and its even larger Wildlife Fund and annual budget. This annual budget stands at roughly $60 million, give or take.

What is know is that the fourth floor of Fountain Square’s Building C is being renovated in such a way as to accommodate the Watercraft Division’s stable of top administrators.

Some critics say this is all being handled in a “hush-hush/sealed lips” fashion.

Other observers are taking note how the idea of the Parks and Preserves Division controlling the Water Division and its Watercraft Safety Fund purse is nothing new; being based upon recent history of an administration that desires money-saving generalist agencies rather than specialized units with their own unique duties and constituencies.

These observers note how the Parks unit is now dictating operations at the assembly of state preserves as well as commanding the Forestry Division’s commissioned officers.

In an internally iniated move, Forestry Division rangers became Parks and Preserves rangers who must continue to observe law enforcement duties at Ohio’s 21 state parks and their more than 200,000 acres.

Of great concern to critics are how a number of existing Watercraft Division field offices is being shuttered and how their flags are being transferred to various nearby Parks and Preserves offices.

Among the moves is the farming out of Watercraft’s office in Sandusky to the Parks and Preserves’ field office at East Harbor State Park, possibly being housed within the bowels of the old Catawba State Park building, said one observer who asked that his/her name not be used.

“The big question is how they are going to manage the Waterways Safety Fund,” the source said. “Like the Wildlife Fund, it is tied to federal money and can only be used for specific things.”

Thus it is required by statute that Waterways Safety Fund dollars obtained via federal grants cannot be used to “build picnic tables or to pay an officer to enforce park laws,” the source said also.

A chief worry of many departmental critics is that the current crop of ODNR political appointees and their accompanying underlings have – and indeed, are – eyeing the Wildlife Division’s Wildlife Fund.

“At least the (ODNR) hacks are not meddling with Wildlife (at) this time,” the source said, continuing. “Since the governor stripped Watercraft’s officers of the ability to do their jobs, maybe there was nothing left to do with them.”

Even so, it appears the ODNR has found good use of its Columbus-based maintenance staff. These state employees were kept busy last week remodeling the fourth floor of Building C, the structure that previously harnessed the work of the Parks and Preserves Division alone.

“It sure does indicate where this agency (ODNR) is headed,” said another source who also requested that her/his name not be used for fear of departmental retribution.

“This administration is bent on consolidation,” the second source said also. “No one is holding this administration accountable.”

Yet while teaming up to save dollars is often a good thing it is not the only thing. Each ODNR division is unique, and their commissioned officers are called upon to understand the nuances of their respective agency peculiarities, other sources have consistently maintained.

Part of the issue, these two sources and disgruntled present and former ODNR employees believe and have expressed privately, is that current Parks and Preserves Chief Gary Obermiller also had been the Watercraft Division chief.

Besides these duties the 28-plus-year Natural Resources’ veteran official is a departmental director, overseeing the Parks and Preserves Division. And Obermiller also once headed up the department’s Office of Law Enforcement.

However, Obermiller’s extensive departmental job resume only spells trouble ahead, ODNR critics continue to champion.

They contend under Obermiller the current departmental goings-on points toward further absorption of divisions into a regulatory and management black hole from which the Watercraft Division – and ultimately other divisions like Wildlife - cannot escape.

How all of this plays out in the coming months, only heaven, Gov. John Kasich and Natural Resources Director James Zehringer, knows.
Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Jun 12, 2014


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