More transparency, oversight needed at Fish and Wildlife

There are way too many questions about Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The first, and most important: Exactly who is responsible for the agency?

That wasn't clear Tuesday at a meeting of the legislature's Government Contract Review Committee, which was trying to sort out why it was seeing for the first time the contract under which Fish and Wildlife's well-paid commissioner works.

That commissioner, Jonathan Gassett, receives $134,000 in base pay, another $50,000 in benefits and other payments not to exceed a total of $218,000.

There seem to be some rumblings within the nine-member commission, appointed by the governor, to oversee the agency that Gassett's contract was approved only by the commissioner chairman without input from the full commission.

But beyond that, oversight of Fish and Wildlife seems to be way too lax. Oversight of the agency and its activities falls to the appointed board rather than anyone ultimately responsible to voters and taxpayers.

One explanation is that Fish and Wildlife is funded through licenses and other fees it collects and federal grants rather than from Kentucky's General Fund.

But that's not a very good explanation. The agency is clearly a part of state government. It has a budget of almost $40 million annually, 500 employees, enforces Kentucky wildlife statutes and manages about 1 million acres of public lands.

The clubby nature of the agency under Gassett has risen to the surface before. In 2010, it came under review because of a legal dispute between Gassett and a journalist.

At that time the legislature limited appointed commissioners to two four-year terms — some had served as much as 20 years in the past — and sought to have more input into both approving the members of the oversight commission appointed by the governor and oversight of the contract they approve for the commissioner who oversees the agency.

Last year, the Associated Press reported that Gassett had spent $71,000 on travel since 2008, more than any other executive in state government.

There is a lot of smoke around this agency but it's impossible to tell whether there's any fire because we know so little about it.

That's no way to run a public agency. The legislature and the executive branch must work together to improve both the transparency and the oversight of Fish and Wildlife.