It's back to business as usual for the Nebraska Environmental Trust Board after it rescinded a controversial policy change made in July that essentially prohibited trust staff from lobbying the Legislature.
On Monday, after an hourlong executive session, the 14-member board voted unanimously to reinstate the policy on lobbying initially put in place in 2002 and slightly modified the following year.
"Policies should survive the test of time," board member Jim Douglas told his colleagues. "I don't think the policy we lived under for 11 years was a failed policy."
Mark Brohman, executive director of the trust, will be allowed to lobby on legislative matters with guidance from the board, board chairman Paul Dunn said.
The board began talking about changing its longstanding lobbying policy after a contentious trust meeting in April. Dunn said some board members felt their voices were not being heard as individuals when the board took a position.
The board's decision to change its lobbying policy in July was met with public criticism. The policy was scheduled to be reviewed at the board's September meeting, but six board members who voted for the change were not present for it, sparking further controversy.
Without a quorum at that meeting, the members who did attend could not vote to change the new lobbying policy. At least eight of the board's 14 members must be present for a quorum.
Dunn told the board the attorney general's office has received requests to investigate the July meeting for possible violations of the state's open meetings law. He had asked for a decision by Monday's meeting, but no decision was given.
Douglas, director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said he placed the item on Monday's agenda as a way of regaining trust among board members and the public.
"Sometimes it's not what you do but how you do it," Douglas said. "It is incumbent on us to maintain the trust of citizens."
Board member Greg Ibach, who also is director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said he proposed the new policy in July as a reaction to the divisiveness among board members at the April meeting.
Before the vote, Ibach told the board he could support amending the policy if it reflected a consensus or a board majority "if we get out of the position of a one-vote margin."
Douglas was agreeable that changes could be made to the policy at future board meetings.
"This returns us to a policy we've had for a long time and puts us back to square one," Douglas said.
Rob Schupbach of Lincoln alleged the policy change in July was an attempt by someone to remove the trust's ability to communicate with the Legislature and thus reduce the amount of money it receives from the lottery.
"Someone is trying to lay the groundwork to take the trust's money in this session, the next session or some future session," Schupbach said.
In an interview, Dunn said although there have been attempts to take away some of the trust's funds in the past, he sees no such efforts underway now.
Douglas said the September meeting, which did not have a quorum, was not orchestrated so some people could not attend, "but it just looked that way."
The trust distributes millions of dollars annually for conservation, water, soil and other environmental projects. The money comes from lottery proceeds.
Brohman told the board it has received 125 grant applications for 2014, which total about $47.6 million.