In a move that has stunned many and has angered more than a few, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources axed on July 5th the-then chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife Ray Petering.
Petering was immediately replaced by Mike Miller. Prior to this shake-up Miller was the Natural Resources Department’s boating law administrator within the reorganized Division of Parks and Watercraft.
And at the same time Petering was being dismissed it became known that the Natural Resources Department was changing the assignment designation status of its various divisional assistant chiefs. This transformation removes the various assistant chiefs’ previous civil servant-protected classification to now an unclassified, and thus unprotected, status.
Prior to this redefinition, assistant chiefs positions were more often than not occupied by career “wonks” who are familiar with the day-to-day activities and policies of the respective divisions they serve. This change is viewed as a potentially serious breach of effective civil servant governance, some believe.
Indeed, less than one week later on July 10th The Natural Resources Department shuffled the-then Wildlife Division’s two assistant chiefs – Susan Vance and Scott Hale – to the reorganized Division of Parks and Watercraft.
At the same time the Department forced changes in the leadership of the Wildlife Division’s wildlife management section, its law section, as well as its federal aid administrator.
Meanwhile, at the law section also will now report directly to Miller, who is a commissioned officer.
The new Wildlife Division team is described below.
As for Petering’s abrupt dismissal, expecting to participate in a meeting in the Fountain Square office of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer, instead Petering was met by him and two other top agency officials. Petering was handed a letter of separation.
This letter states that the authority to dismiss Petering without a right to appeal is granted under the Ohio Revised Code and Administrative Code, and that the 60- or so-word document says it “… is to advise you that your unclassified appointment of Deputy Director… with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife is being revoked. This action will be effective immediately.” and signed by Zehringer.
The letter then concludes with “Thank you for your service and wish you the best in any future endeavors.”
Petering was then escorted by Fountain Square security to his former office to retrieve any personal effects and followed to the entrance of the agency’s sprawling, fenced campus complex. It has been learned.
Department spokesman Matt Eiselstein said that these dismissal steps are in keeping with agency and executive branch protocols.
However, Petering is known to have stated that he was “fired” by Zehringer. And this dismissal also is in sharp contrast to a November 13th, 2015 Natural Resources Department press release. In that release Zehringer announced in flattering tone the recall of Petering from Wildlife Division retirement with the statement that reads in part:
“Ray’s background and experience in the field of fish and wildlife resources, as well as his success in establishing and maintaining partnerships to strengthen wildlife conservation, made Ray the ideal candidate for this job,” said ODNR Director James Zehringer. “Under Ray’s leadership I anticipate the Division of Wildlife will make great advancements in furthering ODNR’s efforts to improve Ohio’s fish and wildlife management.”
However, the Natural Resources Department did not respond to inquiries as to why Petering was dismissed so abruptly. That suddenness struck the Columbus-based U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance as payback for the former chief’s belief that increases to hunting and fishing license fees for Ohio residents were necessary to stave off impending financial challenges for the Wildlife Division.
“We are surprised and utterly disappointed to learn that the ODNR has decided to fire Wildlife Chief Ray Petering,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“Ray has been a tireless advocate for Ohio’s fish and wildlife resources, and for those who fund conservation; Ohio’s sportsmen and women. While Ray served at the pleasure of the Director, he never forgot who the paying customer was, and Ray worked hard to protect conservation and advance opportunities for Ohio’s hunters, anglers and trappers.”
Not unexpectedly, the Alliance also was more than a little infuriated with the National Resources Department in General and Director Zehringer in particular following Monday’s shake-up within the Wildlife Division.
Not surprisingly then the organization did not waste any time in posting its scathing appraisal of the Natural Resources Department’s latest action Monday, the Alliance using a tone it more often reserves for the anti-hunting movement.
“ ‘I’ve heard from many folks this morning that see these moves as little else but political retribution by Director Zehringer and the Kasich Administration,’ said Evan Heusinkveld, the Alliance’s president and CEO in comments appearing on the group’s web page.
“ ‘Continuing the pattern of the last 6 ½ years, the leadership of the ODNR has not had any dialogue, or expressed any urgent need, to entirely decimate the Division of Wildlife’s leadership with the actual tax payers who fund the agency – Ohio’s hunters and anglers.’
“ ‘Additionally, the Sportsmen’s Alliance has learned that neither (the) ODNR, nor the governor’s office, communicated any need for these changes with members of the Ohio Wildlife Council – a group specifically created to advise the governor and director on matters impacting fish and wildlife resources. The Wildlife Council also had broken ranks with ODNR earlier this year, advising the governor and legislature of the need for the fee increases.
“ ‘It’s clear that the leadership of the ODNR does not value input from the tax-paying public,’ said Heusinkveld.
“ ‘Ohio sportsmen and women have become increasingly concerned that ODNR leadership has intentions of raiding the wildlife fund of sportsmen’s dollars that are intended for fish and wildlife conservation. The complete overhaul of the leadership of the Division of Wildlife will only serve to further those fears and sever any trust remaining between sportsmen and women and this administration.' ”
In an electronic letter sent to all Natural Resources employees Zehringer said that while he wished Petering “well in his future endeavors” his replacement, Mike Miller, “has had a long and distinguished career with the Department that includes 20 years as a Wildlife officer and supervisor.”
“Mike brings an experienced wildlife law enforcement perspective to the position, along with some creative ideas in regard to helping the division thrive. I believe Mike will bring energy and focus to the chief’s role that will help us provide additional opportunities and access for our hunters, trappers and anglers.”
Zehringer added that Miller “will assume his new role immediately, and will be meeting with Wildlife staff to share and discuss his vision for the future success of the Division of Wildlife.”
“I know he is eager to hear from staff about their thoughts and ideas, as well as Ohio’s sportsmen and women on what their top priorities are for the near and long term future,” Zehringer said.
That Miller is well qualified to hold down the Wildlife Division fort, people familiar with him heartily agree. Among them is Guy Denny, retired chief of the now largely devolved Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.
Like Miller, Denny is a resident of Knox County and the latter said that the former served with distinction as the Wildlife Division officer assigned by the agency to that largely rural community.
“Mike is a very impressive guy and he is a good choice,” Denny said. “Mike was certainly well respected by everyone in Knox County.”
Still, Denny is not entirely pleased with all of the associated news related to the Wildlife Division shakeup. The move to make assistant chiefs of the Wildlife Division administrative appointees instead of rising through the ranks smacks of patronage, making such candidates answerable to the prevailing political winds and not sound fish and game doctrine, Denny says.
“That’s a very bad move,” Denny said.
Rob Sexton, spokesman for the Sportsman’s Alliance, agrees, adding that what happened July 10th can best be described as being the "Monday morning massacre."
Sexton goes even further by nothing that the assistant chief change is potentially more egregious an error than was the sudden dismissal of Petering. That is because assistant chief positions now can be filled with people who have well-heeled political connections but who possess little to no experience dealing with the matters that impact the respective agencies they’ll be working for, Sexton says.
“The whole purpose of civil servants is to ensure that government functions well without undo political posturing and interference,” Sexton said.
But Eislestein says the new policy is in keeping within the letter of the law and will serve the department well.
“This change was a Department wide move that was undertaken because the title of ‘assistant chief’ carries with it a fiduciary responsibility,” Eislestein said. “Now all assistant chief positions across every ODNR division are unclassified. This review is not unique to ODNR as other departments within the state are also making this change.”
The following individuals have assumed their new roles and titles, effective July 10th and as determined by the Natural Resources Department, as per Eislestein:
Scott Sharpe will oversee wildlife management, district officers, fish management and aviation.
Mike Luers will oversee Fiscal, Federal Aid and Information and Education.
Susie Vance (Communications Coordinator) will be in charge of coordinating education, community outreach and marketing for Parks and Watercraft. Scott Hale (Boating Access Coordinator) is focusing on recreational resource planning.
Greg Wade and Dave Kohler will be transitioning to the Division of Parks and Watercraft. Wade is a law enforcement program manager, Kohler will work on recreational programs.
Efforts to reach out to Petering for direct comment were not returned successfully. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Department declined an interview request to speak with Miller until after the deadline for this story.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn