Where is the control in Buffalo Rapids Board of Control?

By Kay Braddock 


That may be the overall description those who attended the last few meetings of the Buffalo Rapids Board of Control would use to describe their experience. 
Imagine the nauseous feeling or disturbing pang that occurs while riding an out-of-control roller coaster - that gives an adequate impression of what it was like to watch as commissioners engaged in discussions and decisions that seemed more concentrated on satisfying perceived discrepancies, than improving water flow.  
Seven commissioners, elected to listen to their constituents, serve an irrigation project that provides water from the Yellowstone River to 28,000 acres of land in Prairie, Dawson and Custer counties. Their actions, decisions that are to be made in accordance with the wishes of their respective area’s producers, affect about 160 farms where livelihoods are dependant on the irrigated water provided by BR. 
But it is a foolish misconception to believe that their power stops there. 
BR is the third largest employer based in Prairie County. With 17 employees, including 12 full time workers and a project manager, the decisions of BR’s commissioners have ramifications that reach well into the economic and social realms of Prairie County. 
Besides supporting local businesses, many BR employees come with families whose children and spouses provide a vital asset to the town. In a school district, that only a decade earlier boasted over 100 high school students but now struggles to maintain that same enrollment number for grades K through 12, the dozen or so students who come from BR families bear a significant impact. 
It appears it’s well past time to call on commissioners and the producers who placed them in their positions, either by election or by default, to begin considering the consequences of their actions in the service of a public entity. 
Here are some troubling instances that have occurred recently.
Disregard for open meeting laws
As a public entity, the BR Board of Control must follow open meeting laws. There really are no gray areas in state statutes which require adequate notice of meetings be given, minutes of meetings be recorded and opportunity for public comment be encouraged and provided.
All three of which have been violated by the current commissioners of the BR Board of Control.
A recently formed BR subcommittee, made up of three commissioners, acknowledged making decisions without even holding a meeting. When the subcommittee did meet, no notice was given and no minutes were taken. 
  But more disturbing than that revelation made at the Oct 14 meeting, were the actions taken under the direction of BR Board of Control chairman Ray Roethle at the Oct. 20 meeting. As 20 witnesses looked on, including producers and employees of the project, commissioners took their seats in the BR board room, called the meeting to order, and voted to accept the letter of resignation of BR project manager Dave Schwarz. 
In less than five minutes the meeting was adjourned.
  Did chairman Ray Roethle really think those people, who took the time to attend the evening meeting, came to witness first-hand the awe-inspiring voting skills of the BR Board of Control? 
Although the meeting was later reconvened, after some discussion, it was made clear to all in attendance that the majority of the commissioners of the BR Board of Control really had no interest in listening to public comments. 
The vote was made. The matter was settled. BR Board of Control gave not even a pretense of considering other viewpoints in their decision to accept Schwarz’s letter of resignation.
Relationships strained
Recent discussions, including an 11-item memorandum addressing employee benefits and policies, have damaged relationships between the BR Board of Control and their employees. Fearing they had no other recourse, employees contacted union representatives in an effort to seek protection from the BR Board of Control.
Sentiments recently expressed by Fallon producer Doug Hjorth struck a central and valuable truth. A little appreciation goes a long way. BR employees aren’t strangers. Like Hjorth so adequately expressed, they are friends and neighbors. 
If concerns regarding abuse of employee benefits exist, couldn’t commissioners have found a more useful approach without inciting fear in their employees?
Project manger resigns
Amid conversations of a reoccurring and accusatory nature, Schwarz presented his letter of resignation. Accusations, especially those of no substantial or credible value, shouldn’t be entertained. 
It’s called harassment, and a chairman worth his salt, wouldn’t allow topics of that sort to be addressed in any form or fashion.
Reining in control
And now as BR’s current situation sits, employees will unionize, water rates will likely increase, and the project will be seeking a new manager to step in by Jan. 15.
Although he may not be leaving amid the most favorable circumstances, Schwarz’s contribution to the irrigation project are undeniable. In his 19 years, Schwarz brought in over $7 million in grants, established pipelines throughout the project, created a machine shop that saves the project time and money and garnered the respect and loyalty of BR employees.  
Dave Schwarz soon may no longer be in control of BR operations and maintenance, but the real question producers should be asking is, “Who should be controlling Buffalo Rapids Board of Control?” 

Published Oct. 28, 2009

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