The Ag Committee of the Nebraska Unicameral met on Friday, Oct. 14, to, ‘examine any issues within the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committee of the Legislature.’
The current topic of the day was discussed under the guidelines of LR612, a Nebraska resolution which allows a study of Ag issues by the Ag Committee and since the Nebraska Brand Committee fall under that umbrella, in turn, allows a study of the operation of that committee. The recent actions of the Nebraska Brand Committee as examined by a state audit completed by the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts were reviewed.
Chairman Jerry Johnson opened the hearing by reminding all present comments would be received after the Brand Committee made initial remarks.
“Our goal is to run the Brand Committee in the future as a business and hold people accountable,” said Jerry Kuenning, Brand Committee chair. “We have been operating with an antiquated paper system and are working to bring update technology into the field and the office.”
The Brand Committee members including Kuenning, Jaclyn Wilson, John Widdowson and Jerry Metz, went through the motions of how they intended to answer the downfalls which were uncovered in the audit. They also addressed the ‘elephant in the room,’ the position held by Shawn Harvey as Executive Director of the brand committee and most recently assistant director.
Harvey took over the position from long time director Steve Stanick just over a year ago but after some complaints about his misuse of the state vehicle and other incidents, an audit of the commission became a reality.
After the so-called black marks on Harvey’s job performance, he resigned along with several other employees. Even though there were questions, the brand committee agreed and presented a united front when they decided he was the only one who can man their ship. They rehired Harvey as interim assistant director/chief executive of operations during the search for a new leader. After a ‘captain of the ship’ is hired, Harvey’s job will be decided by that person.
But it didn’t take long for the Senators of the Ag Committee to dig through to the real issues. Present were Senators Dave Bloomfield, Ernie Chambers, Burke Harr, Merv Riepe, Ken Schilz, Mark Kolterman and Johnson.
Senator Ernie Chambers began inquiring about the wisdom in rehiring a person who had abused the use of a state vehicle and questioned the Brand Committee as to their responsibility as an oversight vehicle for the brand program.
As the hearing proceeded the Brand Committee commented they felt the audit was incorrect and overreached their boundaries when determining several incidents. The Committee did admit Harvey has great people skills and can work with angry cattle producers and livestock markets to settle disagreements but his office skills were not strong.
“We are working hard to put the right people in the right jobs now,” Kuenning emphasized. “We did the best we could with what we had.”
“What you need is someone on the board who will create a culture for the future and that person needs to clean house when he is hired,” Senator Ken Schilz said. “You should not be satisfied with just getting by.”
Even though when Wilson presented a packet to the Senators which outlined the steps they had already planned out in response to the audit’s results, including a revamping of the Policy which created the Brand Committee in 1941 and an extensive technology program at the expense of $1 million, the Ag Committee had several reservations.
“The auditor did you a tremendous favor,” Senator Merv Riepe said. “I believe you are doomed to failure continuing to work with Harvey.
At this point, the Senators received comments from the audience.
O’Neill cattle producer Joe Pongratz had made written comment to the Ag Committee previous to the hearing and stepped up to center front to answer any questions the Senators had for him.
Pongratz had served on the Brand Committee for several years and had resigned last spring when he became aware of the infractions which were going on and the way they were being addressed by the committee. He felt outnumbered and had no recourse. He also felt there were other inspectors in the Brand Inspection Program which could have driven the proverbial ship.
“I felt during the presentation by the Brand Committee, they had a small circle, were very protective and defensive,” Chambers said. “This is the first time I have heard there was another individual who could have been appointed to the position.” He could understand why Pongratz felt he had nowhere to turn.
“In the past, the Nebraska Secretary of State had a position on the Brand Committee, “said Pongratz. ”Maybe the reason he was there was to interpret the law and that position needs to be brought back.”
“I have to say I feel keeping this individual on smells,” Senator Dave Bloomfield said.
During further comments, Neigh cattleman Dave Wright, president of Independent Cattlemen, also spoke.
“We, as cattlemen, are paying for this service and it should be equal straight across the board,” Wright said in reference to one of the changes the Brand Committee wants to adopt with a bill to be brought before the Unicameral this fall. The bill would introduce a word change in the Brand Policy which would allow the inspectors to charge a lesser fee for feedlots by calling the service to them an audit instead of an inspection.
“There is no doubt the policy needs to be updated; every entity changes policy,” Wright said. “But it concerns me what direction this brand committee is headed, giving favors to certain sectors of the cattle industry, hurting others.”
“I have had more calls on this issue than any others in a long time,” Chambers said.
The Ag Committee adjourned after a three-hour hearing and said more comments could be made by the Brand Committee or individuals after listening to the various comments.