Forestry boss defends grants

Friday, January 20, 2006
Capital Bureau

MONTGOMERY -- Alabama Forestry Commission Chairman Gary Fortenberry, reacting Thursday to criticism from some fellow board members, defended the performance of State Forester Timothy Boyce and the agency's system for handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money.

In a strongly worded exchange with Commissioner Jett Freeman of Spanish Fort, Fortenberry and Vice Chairman Jerry Lacey suggested that an ongoing dispute over the direction of the commission is unfounded and has as much to do with Freeman's dissent as anything else.

"Jett, I do know the meaning of the word integrity, and I try to live it out every day," Fortenberry said, responding to comments from Freeman published last month in the Mobile Register. "You seemed to say that everything the commission is doing is wrong. ... I've never seen anything like this, and I just apologize for all the confusion."

Freeman has raised concerns about commission grants to outside organizations affiliated with three of the commissioners: Fortenberry of Ward (a former president and board member of the Alabama Treasure Forest Association); Ted DeVos of Elmore (an officer of the Alabama Wildlife Federation); and Johnny Dennis of Florence (an officer in the Alabama Association of Volunteer Fire Departments).

"I've never tried to influence any grants on the Treasure Forest Association, and I've never tried to receive any money," Fortenberry told Freeman during a meeting of the seven-member board.

Freeman and Commissioner Don Heath of Hoover, both appointees of Gov. Bob Riley, have also criticized last July's 4-2 vote changing commission bylaws to require a unanimous vote (rather than a majority) to fire or discipline Boyce or his top assistant, Richard Cumbie. Fortenberry, DeVos, Dennis and Lacey all voted for the change.

The vote came after Heath and Freeman criticized Boyce's job performance and during the same meeting where the board received a consultant's report showing dissatisfaction among the 300-plus employees statewide with the commission's upper management.

The bylaw issue came up almost immediately Thursday morning, as Freeman challenged the minutes from the July meeting. He said he wanted the document to note that "no one, nobody on the commission, not the state forester, would admit to writing the rules change" on Boyce's job.

Fortenberry snapped back that Freeman knew the change came from an ad hoc committee the chairman appointed. With Freeman and Heath pressing for a reason for the change, the chairman interjected: "I tell you why, because from your first meeting you came in here saying we had to fire Tim Boyce, that Richard Cumbie had to be fired, that everything the Forestry Commission is doing is wrong."

Freeman and Heath disputed that characterization.

Fortenberry's and DeVos' terms expired in November, but state law allows them to remain on the board until their successors are confirmed. Riley nominated Kenneth Real of Detroit, Ala., and Melisa Love of Opelika last year, but the pair never received a full Senate vote. Riley has renominated them this year.

DeVos and Dennis did not specifically address the grant questions Thursday, but have in the past pointed out that the staff of the Forestry Commission, not the board members, have the final say on where money goes.

Boyce did not address the commission directly Thursday morning.

But one of his top lieutenants, Fire Division director Steve May, told Freeman that it was inaccurate to suggest that Boyce controls the grant money. He said other staff members formulate the policy with Boyce's assistance and approval.

The commission, which has about a $30 million annual budget, was created by the Legislature in 1924 to assist landowners with forest land management and educate the public about forestry issues. Forests make up about 22 million of Alabama's 32 million acres. Paper and forestry products comprise the state's largest manufacturing industry.

Commissioners are appointed to five-year terms. Members are paid $25 per day for meetings plus reimbursement for expenses.

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