HERON LAKE — The Heron Lake Watershed District is without an administrator and watershed technician following a retirement and resignation announced within days of each other.
Jan Voit, who worked for the watershed for 38 years — much of that time as its administrator — sent a letter Feb. 1 to each of the five watershed managers announcing her retirement. Her last day of employment with the district was Feb. 15. Meanwhile, watershed technician Catherine Wegehaupt tendered her resignation with an effective date of Feb. 23.
That leaves one employee in the district, Davis Harder, who was hired as a conservation technician specifically to oversee the more than $4 million Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council grant awarded to the watershed in early 2020. He’s been in the job for five months, with the timeframe for the grant extending through 2027.
Voit’s letter of retirement was accepted by the board of managers during a Feb. 4 emergency meeting. That meeting was conducted in violation of Minnesota’s open meeting law, as no notice of the meeting was published. Voit said Board President Wayne Rasche requested the meeting but didn’t tell her what it was about. As a result, there was no agenda produced.
In addition to accepting her letter of retirement, the board also approved contracting with Voit on an as-needed basis during the transition. Her hourly rate of pay will remain the same.
Since Voit’s last day in the office was Feb. 11, she did not take part in a regularly scheduled meeting of the watershed district on Wednesday. Several of the items on that agenda were not acted upon due to the absence of a watershed administrator.
The administrator and technician positions aren’t the only personnel changes for the watershed district.
Two of its five managers have been replaced, with Randy Lubben appointed by Nobles County to fill the seat vacated by six-year board member Bruce Lienen and Jason Freking of Heron Lake appointed by Jackson County to fill the seat occupied for the past five years by Harvey Kruger. Both new appointments take effect Feb. 24.
An organizational meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. March 2 with the new board members. At that time, Rasche said they will discuss the staff vacancies. The first priority, he shared in a Thursday phone interview, will be to fill the administrator’s position — if that's what the board decides.
“We’re in the process of redoing the (personnel) policy book. We need to do that here, quick, before we put the application out for a new hiree,” Rasche said. “We need to get an administrator or someone in the office.
"We have to keep doing our day-to-day stuff with ditches and grants, so we have to get someone in the office as soon as we can.”
Rasche said Voit’s sudden retirement announcement came as a shock and surprise, though he can’t fault her for wanting to spend more time with her family and grandchildren, as she told him and fellow managers in the Feb. 4 meeting.
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Voit, however, pointed to different reasons for her decision to suddenly leave the post during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. What she didn’t mention in her letter to managers is that she feels a lack of support from managers — and the county commissioners who appointed them to the watershed board. Three watershed managers are appointed by Jackson County, with Nobles and Murray counties each appointing one manager to the board.
“In the last three years, the four board members that really cared about conservation have been replaced,” Voit said. “You want people there that care. You don’t want people there that want to tear the organization down. You need someone there that supports conservation and wants to do the right thing.”
The district is currently working with six different grants, the largest of which is the $4,493,000 Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council grant awarded to the Heron Lake Area Conservation Partnership. The partnership includes Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Land Trust, North Heron Lake Game Producers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota DNR and the HLWD.
The grant was received early in 2020, and is specifically for the protection and restoration of more than 400 acres of high-value wetlands and prairie within the Heron Lake watershed.
“There really wasn’t support on the board for our $4 million Lessard-Sams grant,” Voit shared Wednesday. “They want flood storage — they really didn’t want wetland restorations.
“Catherine and I talked to the board repeatedly about doing projects, but they didn’t want to tax landowners for doing projects,” she added.
Voit's other issue stems from the watershed district’s role as the drainage authority. She claims Jackson, Nobles and Murray counties don’t want the Heron Lake Watershed District to have such authority.
It first became an issue a year and a half ago, she said, when she and two board members appeared before Jackson County commissioners with plans to improve Jackson County Ditch 3. Commissioners voted to deny the request to bond for the project, citing concerns that bonding for so many drainage projects might adversely affect the county’s bond rating. A lowered bond rating could result in increased interest rates for future bonding.
With the county’s decision, Voit said she reached out to banks and ultimately secured short-term financing from Bremer Bank to fund the CD3 project. Doing so saved landowners in the ditch system more than $350,000 in interest, she said.
To Voit, the law is the law, and in Minnesota, it states that watershed districts are to be the drainage authority. She wasn’t willing to back away from that, although managers are now working on a cooperative agreement with Jackson County pertaining to public drainage.
Rasche said the agreement does not mean Jackson County becomes the drainage authority.
“They just want control of the financing,” Rasche shared. “It would be a joint relationship where everything would still come to us (as a watershed district) like it has in the past, but before final bidding, it would be turned over to the county for financial work.”
At least that’s how the agreement is currently written. Rasche said neither the watershed district nor the county has approved it as of yet.
As for the existing grants and ditch systems with which the watershed is working, Rasche said he’s hopeful the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) and ISG, an engineering firm the district works with, will be able to keep the projects progressing.
BWSR’s Ed Lenz, who works in the southwest Minnesota district, attended Wednesday’s virtual meeting and offered to assist the HLWD moving forward.
“We can help you and give you examples of what other entities are doing, (as well as) contracting opportunities,” Lenz said. “We’re here to help and offer organizational help and grant management.”
Lenz told the HLWD board that all of the state reporting is current right now for the HLWD’s grants, two of which were awarded through BWSR.
While BWSR is willing to help, watershed managers on Wednesday voted 4-1 not to renew its membership in the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts (MAWD) at this time. The dues for 2021 are $5,969. Without the membership, the district loses access to training, lobbying and all other MAWD functions.
With the current uncertainty surrounding the watershed district, Voit said if people who don't care about conservation and the watershed are appointed to the board, there isn’t a reason to have a watershed.
“Which is really, really sad after all of the years and all of the grant money that got brought in,” she added. “I think they just don’t see the value in it, and I don’t understand it.”
Voit, though, is leaving on a good note. She was named Minnesota’s Outstanding Watershed Administrator during the MAWD annual conference last December. And while she’s retiring from the HLWD, she’s hoping to continue to work in conservation somewhere.
“I’m going to take some time for me right now,” she said. “I just needed … what was best for my husband and for me, and leaving the organization was the best for me right now.”
Rasche, meanwhile, said the watershed board has a learning curve ahead and “we’re going to have to take baby steps, make sure we’re covering all of the bases and try to replace part of what Jan was doing.”