Farm Bureau, environmentalist spar over state water board appointment by Janice Francis-Smith
The Journal Record
5/10/2005 . Oklahoma Farm Bureau executives are not worried that their politics will negatively affect their insurance business. But at least one advocate of clean rivers is hoping that like-minded Oklahomans will take a stand against the state's largest agricultural organization.
"It's time to put our thumbs down hard on the Oklahoma Farm Bureau," said Tahlequah resident Ed Brocksmith, president of Save the Illinois River Inc. "If we do not, our heritage of clean water is so much manure."
Farm Bureau opposes Gov. Brad Henry's appointment of Ed Fite to serve on the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Fite already serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.
Farm Bureau put out a memo claiming that a conflict of interest prevents Fite from serving both agencies at once, since the Scenic Rivers Commission provides water quality recommendations to the Water Resources Board.
The Farm Bureau memo was presented to the state Senate Energy and Environment Committee by committee member Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, recipient of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Meritorious Service Award in 1997 and again in 2002. The arguments raised in the memo caused the committee to hold off on confirming Fite's appointment to the board when it was presented to members on April 21.
"If we were talking about the executive director of the (Department of Environmental Quality) or the executive director of the Department of Agriculture, nobody would even be arguing with me," said Farm Bureau Public Policy Director Jeramy Rich. "Nobody would even consider that, because it's clearly a conflict of interest, and clearly, based on statute, illegal."
Oklahoma statutes state that the only concurrent position the administrator of the Scenic Rivers Commission may hold is that of a park ranger for the Tourism Department, said Rich.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson sent the Senate committee a letter stating that Fite is eligible to serve both agencies, since he serves as an administrator - not an officer - for the Scenic Rivers Commission. Even a legislator would be allowed to serve concurrently as executive director of the commission, according to Edmondson's letter.
"We can envision no situation where Ed Fite, as a member of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, would receive any 'interest, profit or perquisite' from the use or loan of funds of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission or the Oklahoma Water Resources Board," reads the attorney general's letter.
Fite has long advocated water quality standards that Farm Bureau has opposed. Farm Bureau asserts that Fite could use his position with both agencies to push for stricter phosphorus standards and to promote the attorney general's position in potential litigation against poultry companies Edmondson says are polluting Oklahoma's rivers.
Brocksmith said Farm Bureau is just trying to protect "its corporate buddies like Tyson's Foods, Simmons Poultry Company, George's, Seaboard," and others by opposing Fite's confirmation. Farm Bureau's customers should hold the company accountable for its "dirty water tricks," said Brocksmith.
"There are some fine people selling Farm Bureau insurance, and it's too bad they have to put up with the corporate dirty tricks of their company," said Brocksmith. "I won't do business with them… I hope that the people are finally getting fed up."
Farm Bureau has been at the forefront of the water quality dispute during the current legislative session, and supported an unsuccessful piece of legislation that would have presented significant roadblocks to the attorney general's potential lawsuit against the poultry companies. But Farm Bureau listens to its members, said Rich, and the insurance business is going strong.
"Our grass-roots members set the policy and tell us what they want us to do," said Rich. "Nothing is to say that the organization can't change our mind. In fact, we probably have in the past… But it won't be me who changes my mind - it will be those grass-roots folks who decide they want to take another look at an issue."
Janice Francis-Smith reports on governmental and other regulatory issues. You may reach her by phone at 524-7777 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.