Missouri bill seeks larger Conservation Commission

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.
The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.

A legislative bill calling for a big change in the composition of the Missouri Conservation Commission is stirring debate.

Supporters of the bill working its way through the Missouri General Assembly say the measure, which calls for increasing the commission from four to six members and restricting commissioners to only one six-year term every 12 years, would result in better representation of different regions in the state.

Opponents say the current commission structure has worked well since it was created in the 1930s and there is no reason to change it.

Similar bills were introduced in 2015, 2014 and 2012 but failed. But this measure is gaining traction. It passed 22 to 10 in the Missouri Senate, and is now being considered in the House. If it passes, it will be up to voters to decide. It probably would be placed on the November ballot, officials say.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Williamstown, Mo. He has continually criticized the fact that northeast Missouri has had little representation on the commission for the last 35 years. With that in mind, his original bill called for the governor to appoint eight commissioners — one from each of the Department of Conservation’s regions — to serve on the commission. A compromise resulted in a bill calling for six at-large commissioners to be appointed.

Even that would result in better representation for different parts of Missouri than is currently seen, Munzlinger said.

“With only four members, there have been a lot of areas in the state that haven’t had representation on the commission,” Munzlinger told The Star. “This would definitely have more people (providing) knowledge on the commission of issues to their part of the state.

“Personally, I think that they (the Department of Conservation) do a pretty good job, but I also think that expanding the commission would make it better.”

Current commission members strongly disagree. They say they show little partisanship in their approach now, instead focusing on the state as a whole rather than the region in which they live. An email to Department of Conservation employees, obtained by The Star, contained a Conservation Commission Position Statement, saying, “The Conservation Commission believes that Senate Join Resolution 19, which proposes to amend the Missouri Constitution, is unnecessary and threatens the future of conservation as we know it.”

In a telephone interview, commissioner James Blair IV stood by that statement and pointed out that the feeling was unanimous among the four commissioners.

“When I look at what this calls for, I have one big question: Why?” said Blair, who lives in St. Louis. “What warrants opening the constitution and changing something that has worked for 80 years?

“If there was an outcry from the public or a petition drive, I could understand where this is coming from. But polls taken by independent (entities) always show a large majority of Missourians are satisfied with the way the Department of Conservation is performing. And audits consistently give the department excellent marks.

“This is driven by pure politics.”

So why are Blair and other commissioners so opposed to the bill? They say increasing the commission to six members could lead to more bickering about partisanship, and that could make it harder for the panel to deal with issues.

Supporters of the bill have a different view. They say it would lead to better representation statewide.

“The public has no say in who gets appointed to the commission or which part of the state they come from,” said Johnny Everhart of Blairstown, Mo. “That’s why two or three of them are always from the east side of the state.

“What’s worse, the public can’t contact these people. All the states around Missouri have eight or more commissioners who have their contact information available on the states’ fish and game commission websites, urging hunters and fishermen to keep in contact with them. It’s not like that in Missouri.

“By increasing the number of commissioners, there’s a chance there would be better accessibility to the commission.”

Brent Frazee: 816-234-4319, @fishboybrent