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Wednesday, 11 June 2014 13:25

Raleigh boots midterm members off Pigeon River Fund board

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fr pigeonfundIt’s been more than a month since seven of the Pigeon River Fund Board’s nine members learned that a dictum from Raleigh was booting them off midterm, but the restructured board is still raising eyebrows and ire. Typically, the board recommends replacements to fill vacancies when a member’s three-year term ends in August, and the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources approves them. This go-around, however, that didn’t happen. 

“We had two board members last spring whose first terms were going to be up in August, and we had strongly recommended they were going to be reappointed for second terms,” said board member Kathy Ross. “We didn’t get any response on those appointments.”

The seats were never filled by those or any other candidates, and the board went from 11 members to nine. That’s when Ross started to get suspicious that something was up, but she never guessed that nearly all of her colleagues would soon be gone.

“I had some concerns then that politics might be playing a role in that delay,” Ross said, “but I had no idea that the folks at DENR would go to the extremes that they did.”

That “extreme” occurred in April, when Tim Richards got word of another change. Richards, who is the senior program officer for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which manages the Pigeon River Fund, learned then that DENR was removing most of the sitting members and replacing them with people selected by the agency, not by the Community Foundation or the Pigeon River Fund. The changes were effective immediately, the turnover happening in the midst of a grant cycle rather than waiting until August, when appointments typically took effect. 

“The secretary made the decision to restructure the board to make it smaller and more efficient and did so in keeping with the requirements of the FERC license,” Jamie Kritzer, DENR’s public information officer, said in an emailed statement. “All new board members were selected carefully only after consultation with residents and government officials from western North Carolina.”

There is no debate that it is certainly within the secretary’s purview to appoint whoever he wants. Just because past appointments have merely been a rubber stamp approval of the board’s recommendation doesn’t mean that DENR is required to accept them. However, the timing of the appointments, the geographical representation of the new members and questions of political motivation have ruffled feathers and raised eyebrows. 

 

A question of geography

For starters, none of the newly appointed members are from Haywood County. The Pigeon River Fund is supposed to primarily benefit Haywood County, and previously, the board’s community representatives have been mostly from Haywood County. Of the nine members remaining after August, six were designated as community representatives. Four of those lived in Haywood County. After the restructuring, Ross, who lives in Clyde, is the only Haywood County resident on the board. 

“The agreement states that if they’re good grants, 50 percent of the money has to go to Haywood County,” said former member Peggy Melville. “I guess from that I would have thought there would be more than one person appointed to the board.”

According to DENR, however, the intent was to have equal representation from each of the three counties. The lopsided outcome was simply a mistake. 

“We believed one of the individuals screened lived in Haywood County but realized after the appointment that the new member was from a different county,” Kritzer’s statement read. “However, Haywood County is well represented by an existing member and, as I understand it, one of the members from the utility is also a resident of Haywood County.”

The Pigeon River Fund was created in 1996 as a way to mitigate the environmental impacts of a hydropower dam that CP&L, the predecessor of Progress Energy, built on the Pigeon River. The effects of the dam include miles of low-flow riverbed, a result of river water diverted through pipes over miles of land en route to the powerhouse. Diverting the water this way allows it to drop a greater distance and therefore create more power, but it also drastically changes the environment that would have surrounded the river. 

The utility pays a portion of its profits into the trust fund every year, and the board then grants money out to fund various water quality improvement projects in the impact area of Haywood, Buncombe and Madison counties, an amount totaling $4.6 million between 1996 and November 2013. Because most of the dewatered stretch occurs in Haywood County, the license states that more than half of the money in each bi-yearly grant cycle must go to Haywood County projects, provided that the board receives enough quality grant applications from that county. 

But none of the newly appointed members are from Haywood County. Rather, they’re all from Madison and Buncombe counties, which means they’re less likely to be familiar with areas and projects in Haywood County. 

 

Inopportune timing

Indeed, only one of the new members made it to site visits in Haywood County last month, which members were invited to participate in before spring grants were awarded. However, Richards said, that fact alone is nothing to get upset about. 

“Normally the board is appointed effective in August for that next year, and we work with the same board throughout the year and we have an opportunity to do orientation and get on everybody’s calendar,” Richards said. “This year, unfortunately, because of the change in administration they did not finalize the board until the end of April.”

However, DENR contends, the changes were, in fact, timely, going into effect in advance of the spring site visits. 

“The restructuring had been planned since early this year and the changes were made in the spring so new members would be in place before the board’s next batch of site visits,” Kritzer’s statement read.   

But Richards said the new members had less than two-weeks notice of the dates for the visits. Regardless, though, it had never been the norm for board members to visit sites outside their own counties. 

“I think all of us felt that whatever county we were from, that was the one we should visit instead of having to travel,” Melville said.

Ross doesn’t fault the new members for not attending the visits — rather, she praises them as being knowledgeable, hardworking and invested in the process — but she does fault DENR for rocking the boat in the first place.  

“They really seem to be fine board members, but that doesn’t change the fact I’m really unhappy about what happened to the previous board,” Ross said.

“I think it would have served the Pigeon River Fund better to have let us all rotated off at end of term and replaced them in an orderly manner,” Melville said.  

When the changes took effect, the board was in the thick of reviewing grant applications. Spring applications were due March 15, and the final vote took place May 28. The shake-up would have been even more disruptive, Ross said, if she had resigned. She almost did. 

“I thought very highly of the members I had served with,” Ross said, “and because I knew how hard-working and dedicated they were, I was upset they were removed.” 

She eventually opted to stay on the board, however, because there was no guarantee that a Haywood County resident would replace her seat. 

“It would have potentially left Haywood County with no resident representing the county on the board, even though the county is supposed to get at least 50 percent of grant money,” she said. 

 

Ds and Rs

But why shake up a board that all accounts point to as knowledgeable and functional, especially in the middle of a granting cycle? 

According to a statement from Kritzer, DENR Secretary John Skvarla made the change in order to make the board “smaller and more efficient.” The restructuring made official the switch from an 11-member board to a nine-member board, which became the de facto structure in August when two board members’ terms were allowed to expire. But no official rationale has come down from DENR for choosing the new members over those already serving. 

But Ross has her own suspicions. The booted members were all registered Democrats, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections. Of the new members who are registered voters, all are Republican. 

“I can’t speak for DENR,” Ross said. “What I do know is that I’m a registered Republican, and I have to say I suspect that was the reason I was kept on the board.” 

But the Pigeon River Fund isn’t a political board. Its members are tasked with reviewing grant applications, visiting sites and deciding which projects to fund. The members tend to be united by their knowledge of or interest in water quality, not by their politics. 

“Politics never came in, I can tell you that,” Melville said. “The recommendations [for board appointees] came in from people that had an interest in the water quality.”

“We never discussed politics,” Ross agreed. 

Despite the board’s geographic and political shift, however, Haywood County’s grant funding did not suffer in this most recent cycle. All grant applications coming from the county were approved, Richards said, comprising more than 50 percent of total spring funding. Combined, Haywood County has received 54 percent of grant funding given for fall 2013 and spring 2014. 

“There was very good participation from all the members, including the new members, at reviewing the grants, reading them online, preparing themselves for the discussion,” Richards said. 

As long as Haywood County organizations — principally, Haywood Waterways Association, which sprung up mainly as a conduit through which to turn money into results — continue writing quality grants, the board will have to award Haywood the majority of the funds, so Ross is hopeful that the proportion will continue to stay on track. 

“We were worried about it, but with their latest grant cycle and what they awarded at least in the spring, the concern was unfounded,” Haywood Waterways Executive Director Eric Romaniszyn said of the new board’s dearth of Haywood residents. “Now what that means long term, I don’t know. I guess there’s always going to be that concern.”

The Pigeon River Fund is instrumental to Haywood Waterways work. The organization leverages the fund money to use as matches for other grants, multiplying the dollars they’re given to ten times that amount. In fall 2013, Haywood Waterways received $56,000 from the Pigeon River Fund. 

Haywood Waterways tries to play it cautious, though, Romaniszyn said. Grant funding is always tenuous, no matter the source, so as the organization has grown it’s worked to wean itself off of grant funding as a main source of income, starting an endowment fund and looking into options such as estate giving. 

“Nothing’s ever guaranteed,” Romaniszyn said. “There’s always a concern we’re not going to get a grant or maybe not all we request.”

At this point, board representation is, likewise, not guaranteed. Ross’s three-year term expires next August, and because this is her second consecutive term she’ll have to come off afterward. There’s no telling whether her replacement will also be a Haywood resident. 

“I think it will be very important at that time to make sure someone else from Haywood County is on the board,” Ross said. 

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