Meeting Tuesday in Statesboro, Georgia Department of Natural Resources' board voted to reorganize the department, creating a Law Enforcement Division separate from its Wildlife Resources Division.
The vote, with 17 of 19 board members present, was unanimous. But the plan has drawn public opposition from some former DNR officials and allegations that current officials used state resources to create an exaggerated appearance of public support. The meeting was held at Georgia Southern University's Nessmith-Lane Conference Center.
Beginning Monday, the Wildlife Resources Division's 204 conservation rangers, popularly known as game wardens, will become part of the new Law Enforcement Division. But DNR also has about 100 additional employees certified as peace officers in four other divisions. Most have other duties besides law enforcement. For these, the transition to the new division - or a choice to remain in their current divisions and no longer be law enforcement officers - has a five-year phase-in period, ending Aug. 1, 2018.
The scattering among different divisions meant different hiring standards, different procedures, and a lack of coordination in how officers were assigned geographically, DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson said.
"Put all our badges on a map and you can see that we actually have clusters of officers in certain areas and then we have other areas without any officers," he said. "By having all our law enforcement consolidated into one work group, we'll be able to address all those issues and concerns and be a lot more effective and efficient, we believe, and also better-positioned liability-wise."
The issue has been discussed off and on for two decades. Five years ago, the Legislature passed a resolution to create a study committee.
DNR officials then sought to head off legislative action by reorganizing from within. A plan implemented in 2010 restructured law enforcement within the Wildlife Resources Division. The number of fisheries and wildlife technicians with part-time law enforcement duties, originally about 80, was cut in half, Bryson said.
The new plan takes the trend a step further, creating a separate division. Bryson, who before becoming deputy commissioner served as a DNR law enforcement officer, presented the plan at the May 21 board meeting in Atlanta. A hearing for public comment was held on June 4.
Inflated public support?
The department also invited written comments. In all, DNR had received 2,050 comments in favor of the change and 750 "either opposed or concerned with the process" before Tuesday's meeting, according to Bryson.
But the count in favor included form letters sent from the department to select individuals who signed and returned them. Georgia Wildlife Federation CEO Todd Holbrook and others have produced evidence of this. Holbrook, also a former DNR deputy commissioner, spoke to the board Tuesday, alleging that the form letters originated on computers at the DNR law enforcement headquarters and that returned forms constituted 36 percent of the written comments.
This, Holbrook said, amounted to the DNR serving as its own advocacy group and using money from taxes and hunting and fishing licenses to make public support of its proposal look greater than it was. He asked the board what would happen if other DNR agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Division, followed this example.
"Ask yourselves, how would the board react to the EPD loading public responses on a controversial water issue in a similar fashion and then presenting the weighted data to you," Holbrook said.
Bryson responded after the meeting, calling Holbrook's interpretation false but saying the substance of it would be investigated.
"We have employees of the department that were advocating the position of the commissioner's office, Bryson said. "We haven't manipulated anything. If anything was done improper by any of our employees regarding this, we'll investigate that and we'll handle it accordingly."
The Georgia Wildlife Federation had not taken a stance opposing the reorganization but had concerns and wanted more opportunity for input from hunters, anglers and state park users than the DNR had provided, Holbrook said in a Monday interview.
He noted that the public hearing was held in downtown Atlanta on a weekday and said DNR had not listed hunters and anglers as stakeholders for input.
As for the substance of the change, the Wildlife Federation is concerned that duties for patrolling state parks will be shifted to conservation rangers without an increase in funding. If that happens, he said, money will be pulled away from game management work.
"If they do that, hunting and fishing lose," he said.
Other critics have voiced the flipside of that concern - that parks will go unpatrolled. The Parks Division's 79 officers will need to decide before August 2018 whether to remain in parks or transfer to law enforcement.
Eventually, under the new system, rangers who patrol counties to enforce hunting and fishing laws will also patrol parks in their area.
To beef up the law enforcement presence at state parks, more officers from the new division may become park residents, Bryson said. He named nine state parks and historic sites that have resident officers or where officers are planning to move. The nearest to Statesboro is Fort McAllister State Park near Richmond Hill.
The five-year phase-in, Bryson said, will give the department and employees time to adjust.
"July 1 is the start of a gradual transition which will involve stakeholder input beginning now until August 1, 2018," he said.
Lobbyist Neill Herring also spoke to the board to condemn the use of the form letters as manipulation of public input, and leveled other criticism at Bryson.
Law enforcement endorsement
But eight other people who spoke to the board Tuesday supported the change. These included Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation President Reggie Dickey, two sheriffs, Statesboro police Maj. Scott Brunson, two retired law enforcement chiefs, a former magistrate court judge and an Atlanta lawyer who often represents law enforcement agencies and officers.
The attorney, Lance LoRusso, said the old DNR law enforcement structure with its differing division policies and "essentially creates a roadmap for liability."
Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore, the incoming president of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, also cited liability concerns in asking the board to vote for the change.
"Law enforcement should be directed and commanded by law enforcement," he said. "It is your duty to reduce the liability on your department throughout this state, and the way to do this is have law enforcement officers who are trained in law enforcement, who have that mission, to run law enforcement."
The controversy helped fill a banquet hall at Georgia Southern University where board members sat at a U-shaped arrangement of tables in the middle. Scheduled long in advance, the Statesboro meeting was one of two times this year the board meets away from Atlanta, as it typically does every year in different cities.
Capt. Scott Klingel, a Metter-based DNR law enforcement regional supervisor, said he believes the restructuring will be a positive move within the department. It won't result in any loss of officers in his area, he said.
"I don't anticipate that our rangers will feel any effects one way or the other, and I don't anticipate the sportsmen will notice any difference," Klingel said. "The only change that the public will maybe even notice will be that our patches, instead of saying Wildlife Resources, hopefully will say Law Enforcement Division."