By Kay Braddock
Marking a week of significant changes at Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project, commissioners of the BR Board of Control accepted a letter of resignation from BR project manager Dave Schwarz, as well as voting to voluntarily recognize union representation by BR employees.
Both decisions, made during a special meeting held Tuesday night, stemmed from discussions that took place less than a week earlier during a five-hour Oct. 14 regular meeting.
Schwarz’s letter of resignation was met with a 2-4 split vote, while commissioners unanimously voted to recognize union representation – opting to withdraw their earlier filing contesting three employees from joining the union’s bargaining unit.
BR member-at-large Ric Holden was not present at the meetings.
Negotiations between commissioners and union representatives are likely to begin right away, according to earlier statements made at the Oct. 14 meeting, where union representatives Alan Ekblad and Bill Lingerfelt encouraged commissioners to voluntarily recognize the union rather than delaying the process.
“There’s no need to go out and waste your money … on lawyers,” Lingerfelt told the six commissioners. “We’ve been through this quite a few times. Lawyers come in, the companies pay the money … and we still end up at the table negotiating.”
Area producers expressing their support for Schwarz and BR employees attended both the Oct. 14 and Oct. 21 meetings. Tuesday night’s meeting drew in the larger crowd with about 20 people attending, including employees and a union representative.
At the Oct 14 meeting producers spoke at the onset of the meeting. Several expressed unease over BR difficulties publicized recently.
“My concern right now is the publicity. It seems like we need a healing, a bit of a healing process through all of this,” district 1 producer Bob Lindvig said. “Obviously the press may be blowing it up, but it seems like there’s quite a major split.”
Producer Lynn Wittmayer asked commissioners if they remembered the “good old days of water rationing” which she recalled occurring on a yearly basis before a regular pump maintenance plan was established. She credited Schwarz’s ability of acquiring grants and establishing the BR machine shop for improvements made within the project.
Producer Allen Ollerman expressed frustration that Holden was not present at the meeting.
“What it looks like the board is doing, is causing a lot of chaos,” Ollerman said. “The one I really wanted to address is not here.”
Fallon producer Doug Hjorth said he believes his land value has gone up $300 - $500 an acre because of improvements made by the irrigation project on his property.
“I think we’re very fortunate to have the employees we do,” Hjorth said, adding “They’re friends. They’re neighbors. I went to school with some of them. I don’t think the union is a good thing. I guess we cannot stop them if they want to go, but I think it could have been prevented with maybe a pat on the back.”
Commissioners encouraged producers to attend the Nov. 3 meeting to express their viewpoints there as well.
“I think it’s unfair of all you guys coming here together and not the rest of the producers,” district 1 commissioner Don Buxbaum said. “I don’t know how this meeting come about, how you were contacted to come, but I know a lot of producers in my area weren’t contacted.”
Although similar sentiments were expressed by producers who attended the Oct. 20 meeting, views were not shared until after the board voted to accept Schwarz’s letter of resignation.
As 20 attendees looked on, commissioners began the meeting. Buxbaum motioned to accept Schwarz’s letter of resignation. James Whitmer seconded the motion and the vote was taken with district 2 commissioners Barry Rakes and Scott Sackman offering the only nay votes. The meeting, which lasted less than five minutes, was then adjourned, only to be reconvened after BR secretary Pat Davis and others expressed concern that they were not allowed to offer public comment.
“Was this your guys’ plan all along here?” District 2 producer Jeff Wallace asked. “This project … is a hell of a lot better than it was. And I would like to know why he’s (Schwarz) resigning. … Are you intentionally pushing him? Dave has created a lot of good for our canal.”
Wallace continued, “It’s embarrassing. He’s done a hell of a job here. And you go around behind his back and get an auditor and check up on him, when you don’t trust the one he has. How would you feel if somebody went around and did that to you? Now Glendive has their money problems, you want to blame Dave. It’s not Dave’s fault … I like the man and I would like to see him here. … You’ve got a lot of employees that really like him and respect him here. And some of them may leave and yes, I guess everybody is replaceable. … Why can’t we get along? Work through this. Letting him resign is a terrible thing.”
“There’s a meeting Nov. 3,” chairman Ray Roethle said to Wallace. “You can express your view with all of the producers.”
“Well, hell it’s too late now,” Wallace responded.
Whitmer and Roethle said they believed they were doing what the producers in their area wanted them to do by accepting Schwarz’s letter of resignation. Buxbaum and district 2 commissioner Jim Finneman declined to give a reason for their votes to accept the letter of resignation, but Buxbaum gave indications that district 1’s financial state was the start of the problems.
Discussions that took place before resignation submitted
Schwarz offered his letter of resignation at the end of the Oct. 14 meeting after discussions arose about the board’s recent decision to hire an outside accountant to examine BR’s finances.
“That’s the other thing that I’m really irritated about is this business of bringing in a fraud detection expert,” Schwarz said. “I think that some people here owe me an apology.”
“I think she brought some good information to us,” Roethle responded.
“That’s not the point,” Schwarz responded. “The point is that she was brought here to look at the books and see if there was any fraud going on, specifically on me and Pat. … She was given specific instructions on where to look and what to look for.”
“You guys are damn near ruining reputation here,” Davis said, adding, “It was an insult.”
“At the time it was to find out where you guys were sitting,” Rakes said, referring to district 1’s finances and what he believed to be the reasoning of hiring the accountant. “Nothing was said about fraud. … And then the next day it’s a fraud audit.”
Commissioners present said they were not aware that the accountant’s area of expertise was in fraud detection.
Davis noted the contract, which she believed was initiated between the accountant and Holden, established what the accountant was expected to do. She also said the accountant cost the project $3,000.
“I’m tired of it – right up to here with it,” Schwarz said after referring to the insinuation that he is embezzling money from BR.
“Well, I know this pickup deal brought up a lot of stuff,” Finneman responded, referring to the pickup the board agreed to sell to Schwarz for $1 as compensation for a salary increase. The offer was extended by the board five years ago after Schwarz was offered a job from another irrigation project.
Finneman then presented the board with an email from the project manager of the Milk River Irrigation District that he believed proved that Schwarz was never offered a job by the district.
“Why would you even call on this?” Rakes asked Finneman.
Schwarz said he was offered a job at the district. He expressed frustration that commissioners would feel the need to look into the matter.
“I want a decision from you right now. Either you want me here and this crap is going to stop and you’re going to weed some of this trash off the board or I’m out of here,” Schwarz said.
“You’re out of line there Dave,” Roethle responded.
Schwarz then submitted his letter of resignation and stated that he would work through January to complete the four projects he has in place.
Published Oct. 21, 2009