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Water conservation district takes action

by Alecia Warren
| June 29, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - Back on track.

Well, getting there.

The Kootenai-Shoshone Soil and Water Conservation District board has leapt to clean up its act after the Shoshone County commissioners threatened to withhold funding because of the board's squabbling and inefficiency.

"I can speak for the board members who I know feel this way - we're very sorry it ever came to this," said Joy Cassidy, new board chairman for the district that pairs with landowners, businesses and government agencies on local conservation projects. "Believe me, if it's within our power, and we believe it is, we will turn this around."

In a letter sent to the board last week, the Shoshone commissioners upbraided the 7-member group for its infighting and for crumbling relationships with outside agencies.

The letter asked for a "complete restructuring" of the board.

"The Shoshone County Board of commissioners has lost confidence in the current (conservation) board," the letter read. "We will not make any provision for funds for the Kootenai-Shoshone Soil and Water Conservation District until the situation noted previously is rectified to our satisfaction."

Some conservation projects in Shoshone County have stalled or fell through because of the board's conflicts, said Commissioner Jon Cantamessa last week.

"It (the district board) has become pretty dysfunctional, in our opinion," Cantamessa said. "If you don't maintain a positive relationship, the work won't get done."

The Kootenai County commissioners are considering whether they will withhold funds, too, said Commissioner Rick Currie.

"Because it's a budgetary issue, we definitely look at these issues very diligently," Currie said, declining to share his opinion of the district's performance. "If some agencies are pulling their funds, we're not going to be real willing to support with our dollars, because our dollars definitely will not go as far as they have. We need to do our research."

The commissioners' concerns are valid, Cassidy said.

The conservation board has been distracted by private agendas, she said, adding that one member in particular has resisted compromise.

"He's chosen to be the cog in the works at every meeting, miring us down," she said, declining to name the member.

On top of that, rapid turnover of the board's administrative assistant - the only individual manning the district office - has hindered communication with the board's partners.

One ramification has been the Department of Environmental Quality terminating its contract with the conservation district over a recent project, Cassidy said, which other board members confirmed was a water quality project for the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.

"We understood why they wrote the letter," Cassidy said. "One (Shoshone commissioner) had attended the June 9th (district board) meeting, and it was quite evident to all that we had a board and district in disarray."

But no more.

Several board members said they are taking steps to refocus.

"I'm really confident we're rerouted the tracks and are going back to where we were before," said member Jody Bieze.

Members held an emergency meeting last week to elect new officers. Cassidy was elected chairman, Isaac Henry vice president, and Sandy Schlepp secretary/treasurer.

"I suppose some people could look at that and say it's just rearranging the chairs," said Bieze, the former chairman. "I think in this case, it's the first step in really showing our partners that we are serious about wanting to do the right thing."

The board has also hired a new administrative assistant, Bieze said, and members plan to meet with an attorney to sort through issues.

Shoshone County typically gives $750 a year to the conservation district, which also receives funds from various agencies, private contributors and grants.

Kootenai County provides an annual $8,000 to the district, according to county Finance Director Dave McDowell.

Henry acknowledged the district can function without Shoshone County's funding, but he said the commissioners' letter was a much-needed wake-up call.

"I give them credit for showing a red light, 'You need to fix something,'" Henry said, adding that discord has been a problem since early this year. "I do think we need to fix the board a little bit."

Member John Burton, however, said he thought the letter was unwarranted.

"I've been on the board four years. This is the first contact the board has ever had with any of the Shoshone County commissioners," he said. "In my opinion, they weren't very specific as to their reasons that they're going to withdraw funding."

Kajsa Stromberg, watershed coordinator for the DEQ Coeur d'Alene office, preferred not to discuss the agency's conflicts with the conservation district.

The North Fork project fell through due to deadline concerns, she said.

"We're still hoping to have a good partnership with the conservation district," Stromberg said. "We do hope in the future we can work with the district again."

Bob Tribelhorn, area conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, preferred not to comment on his thoughts of the district's recent performance.

"I'm really hoping they can get things together and move on this, because the sky's the limit on what they can accomplish," Tribelhorn said. "A good functioning program can do an incredible amount of good things in a community and the counties they serve."

Bieze said the district's accomplishments over the last few years include nutrient reduction in Mica Creek, bank erosion analysis on the Coeur d'Alene River and a land-use suitability model prepared for local builders and officials.

Members of the conservation district board are elected and unpaid.

Cassidy said the board will give an update on its progress to the Shoshone commissioners and other officials in upcoming weeks.

"It's a shame we didn't do this sooner," she said.

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