Wildlife and Parks commission turns 25

Twenty-five years ago this summer, a new player was created in the Kansas outdoors.

Then-Gov. Mike Hayden dubbed it the Kansas Wildlife and Parks commission, shortly after he combined the Kansas Fish and Game Commission and the Kansas Park Authority.

The Kansas Department of Tourism was added to the mix last year by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Last week, Hayden said his intention was for the board to be the go-between for the people of Kansas and the new agency.

“The whole idea was to give the commission authority over the regulations, to implement the laws,” he said, “and those regulations were to be established through a public process, with public input and a recorded vote.”

So far, so good, at least to the current administration.

“I think it would be very difficult for an agency to do the rules and regulations without a commission, working with the public,” said Robin Jennison, current department secretary. “They make you reflect, to make sure you’re doing stuff right. I’m always sure we have hunters and anglers that might have some of the same thoughts as the commissioners.”

Hayden said a main goal was to make sure the system that began in 1987 was responsible and professional — things often lacking in the defunct Fish and Game board.

“It was strictly a patronage system before,” said Hayden, who eventually spent nine years as Wildlife and Parks secretary. “When one party would control the governorship, all the commissioners would be of that party. When (political) parties changed, the commission would totally change. That could be every four years.”

Hayden said the previous system also gave Fish and Game commissioners a great deal of power on personnel issues.

They had the ability to hire and fire agency directors, and did so. Old-style commissioners could also have friends and family hired by the departments.

“In some cases it led to over-hiring and hiring unqualified people,” Hayden said. “They had too much power over personnel.”

Modeled after other states and successful agencies and commissions, Hayden put qualifications for education and experience on the job of secretary. The position was made cabinet-level, and is appointed by the governor.

To insure more fairness, Hayden said he wanted no more than four of seven commissioners from one political party.

Commissioners are appointed by the governor for four-year terms. Many have served two terms. One has served three.

The governor does have the ability to start a process to remove someone from the commission, according to Chris Tymeson, Wildlife and Parks attorney.

A few years ago the legislature mandated the commission must have a geographical balance, too.

The days of meddling with the daily workings and careers of agency employees are long gone.

“They can not hire or fire,” Hayden said. “Each commissioner has the authority to recommend things to the department and state their opinions publicly, but they do not have the authority to order personnel to take specific actions.”

Jennison said he can’t imagine the mess if commissioners were allowed to get involved in personnel issues, especially directing the actions of employees.

“The management of the department should clearly be left up to the management team we have,” he said.

Gerald Lauber, current commission chairman, thinks the current system works fine. An avid sportsman, he likes that commission actions are open to the public, and should include public input.

“We’re there to advise and approve regulations for the sportsmen,” Lauber said. “If we want the department to look into something, I think it should go through the secretary and let him decide the most appropriate way to get us the answers.”