Prairie Heritage Center

The Prairie Heritage Center southeast of Sutherland has been the center of much debate and community dialogue for 10 months as O’Brien County Conservation has encountered one hot topic after another.

SUTHERLAND—Calls for a cultural shift in O’Brien County Conservation were raised at the conservation board’s meeting June 9.

Joshua Haack of Primghar read prepared comments to the board, describing an organizational culture he felt was inflexible and not admitting to past mistakes.

“I’m going to assert the primary issue of O’Brien County Conservation’s culture is that it doesn’t allow or it doesn’t promote addressing missteps and bad judgment decisions,” Haack said.

Haack referenced two particular subjects which the public has repeatedly raised questions about to the board that he said had not received answers or adequate explanation.

The first was the presence of park rangers in uniform and with their service weapons during a conservation board meeting in September. Visitors at that meeting shared they were uncomfortable and felt threatened.

The board never addressed why the rangers had been present during that meeting and why they had come in uniform. Haack asked if the board knew who had given the directive for the rangers to come in uniform.

Board member Kathy Luedke said she had asked about it following an unspecified incident the ranger relayed to her. She said she had been told the rangers had not received instruction to wear uniforms, but came out of concern that something might happen at the meeting.

“I asked about that and I got that there were some issues before that meeting that they were concerned about in terms of people coming to this meeting, and because of the culture that’s out here, not here but out in the world as we speak now, that they were concerned that some things perhaps might go on and so they were here to kind of take care of that particular issue,” Luedke said.

Luedke said she did not follow up with rangers directly about what the issue in question had been.

The second issue Haack raised was lack of clarity from the board around its reasons for cutting the salary and moving the office of former O’Brien County naturalist Charlene Elyea, which took place shortly before she resigned in August.

Haack questioned those decisions, adding that when Elyea resigned “we didn’t see the board searching for answers the way the public was.”

Board member Sherri Bootsma said the board could not legally share with the public the reasons behind the salary cut. She indicated there had been issues with Elyea’s performance of some aspects of her job that had been written up repeatedly without any change.

“When it comes to programming, she is arguably still one of the best, but that’s not just what a job is,” Bootsma said. “The entire board made it very clear, we want her to stay.”

Luedke, who was the only other member of the conservation board present June 9 who served during the time of Elyea’s employment, agreed.

“Because they were issues in personnel files that we could not relate to the public, the public was not going to accept that fact. And so therefore, if they don’t accept those things, there’s nothing else we can say, other than this is the way it was and this is how we handled it,” Luedke said.

Haack closed by thanking the board, adding that he was addressing the culture of the board that “belongs to all of you and also to none of you.”

“It’s a culture none of you can explicitly control but all of you can affect positively. I encourage you to buck the norms and publicly demand answers to tough questions and change the culture to one where it’s encouraged to seek out the truth,” Haack said.

Board member Tom Konz thanked Haack for his input.

“From this point forward we need to move on positively and go in the right direction as a team that’s consistent,” Konz said.