by Ted Sickinger
December 7, 2019
The Oregon Board of Forestry has put Peter Daugherty, the state forester, on a performance improvement plan to address dysfunctional relationships with some board members, poor communication with the board at large and concerns over the agency’s financial condition.
In a Oct. 30 letter to Daugherty, board chair Tom Imeson said the plan stemmed from a discussion the board had after its retreat on Oct. 9. He said the recommendations for corrective action were endorsed by the entire board and the governor’s office.
Tensions between board members, the department and Daugherty have been evident for some time, particularly those members appointed to bring a conservation voice to the board: retired businessman James Kelly, fish biologist Cindy Williams and retired Oregon State University forestry professor Brenda McComb.
The three have frequently expressed frustration with the agency’s lack of responsiveness to their requests for information and that their concerns on specific issues were ignored. The board’s increasing dysfunction spilled into an open and emotional discussion at the Oct. 9 retreat, and Daugherty acknowledged some of the problems there.
Daugherty responded Friday in an emailed statement.
“I take all board feedback seriously, particularly when it has recommendations for improvement,” he wrote. “This review is an opportunity to work with the board to improve relationships within the board as well as between the board, the department and our stakeholders.”
The agency has remained mired in numerous struggles during Daugherty’s tenure, which began in 2016. For the last several months, it has been trying to address an acute cash flow crisis due to uncollected costs from large wildfires. The issue is significant enough to threaten the agency’s solvency, and it has only been able to keep the doors open by borrowing from Treasury, raiding its own reserves and having the Department of Administrative Services cover its payroll costs.
Simultaneously, agency leaders have been striving to develop a new management plan for state forests, one that can stabilize the finances of the division while winning support among both conservation and timber interests. The agency released a draft of that plan this week, and initial feedback from the timber industry, environmental groups and rural counties was not good.
Agency leaders have also been under the gun to respond to two major lawsuits. One just ended with a $1.1 billion jury verdict against the agency for failing to maximize logging revenues on state forests. The other remains in the discovery phase, but seeks to stop 68 planned timber sales that environmental groups contend threaten endangered salmon.
Imeson’s letter acknowledged that the department was dealing with multiple challenges at once, and called the position of state forester “one of the most difficult jobs in state government.” He said Daugherty has effectively led the agency’s firefighting efforts, and that his “loyalty to the department, its people and its programs is unquestioned.”
It went on to say, however, that the broad set of perspectives individual board members brought to the job should be a valuable asset to the department.
“It is critical that each board member feel that their contributions are valued, their request for information are heeded and their concerns are addressed,” Imeson wrote. “At this moment not all board members feel that way. Individual discussions with each board member are imperative to reset the relationship as necessary.”
The letter directed Daugherty to meet individually with each board member within 60 days to gather their perspectives, prepare an overview of the feedback, and deliver a plan detailing how he can work with the board “in a way that builds relationships, promotes consensus and effective and respectful governance. That action plan should be complete by February 15.”
The board also directed Daugherty to prepare a list of key agency stakeholders and develop a strategy to show his and the agency’s commitment to “meaningful and recurring dialogue with all of your stakeholders.”
Imeson called the financial management of the agency’s wildfire costs an issue “of paramount importance.” He acknowledged that Daugherty had informed the board on several occasions that the department was struggling with an outdated fire funding model. But Imeson said Daugherty failed to give them several vitally important facts, including how old some of the uncollected bills were; the sheer size of the $100 million-plus backlog; and that the agency had come perilously close to default on a line of credit on one or more occasions.
“This failure is unacceptable, getting in the way of the board’s responsibility to provide oversight and assistance.”
The same discussion came up at the Oct. 9 retreat, where several board members expressed their concerns that they were only learning the severity of the agency’s cash flow crisis by reading about it in The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The governor has since appointed a financial SWAT team and hired a consultant to help the agency dig out of its financial hole. Imeson’s letter directed Daugherty to work with them and deliver a plan to achieve a meaningful reduction in the uncollected fire costs, and develop a long-term solution to those funding problems.
“You may find that as you are following through on these expectations that you would benefit from a leadership coach,” the letter continued. “We support your working with the Department of Administrative Services to retain a leadership coach who can help you reflect and take action on the feedback you receive from board members and stakeholders.”
The board, which has the authority to hire and fire the state forester, will keep Daugherty on a fairly short leash. Imeson said he would schedule another board evaluation with Daugherty, most likely at the January 2020 meeting, and will require quarterly progress reviews through the year.