As Arkansas Game and Fish Commission director Pat Fitts nears his retirement date in June, the commission is searching for a new director.
As has happened a few times in the past, the commission turned the search into a discreet affair that has caused a great deal of suspense and suspicion within the agency.
One curious development is that until about March 28, the commission excluded its human resources department from the process. Excluding H.R. from a personnel matter is a bad idea anytime, but especially when it involves hiring the organization’s CEO and chief decision-maker. A person in the human resources division filed a Freedom of Information request, prompting the commission to make the process more transparent.
I have been covering the Game and Fish Commission for 16 years, which is twice longer, plus two years, a commissioner’s term. Counting public meetings, monthly work meetings, town halls and unscheduled meetings, I’ve covered about 380 meetings involving 26 current and former commissioners and three ex officio commissioners. From my seat on press row, two candidates are uniquely qualified for the job.
One is deputy director Chris Racey. A Pennsylvania native, Racey earned a degree in fisheries management from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He served as a fisheries biologist, assistant chief and chief of fisheries management for the agency. He knows the agency inside and out, and he has a firm grasp on commission policy, projects and all of the agency’s funding mechanisms. A straight shooter, he speaks with authority and runs a meeting as if he owns it. In Chris Racey there is no guile. What you see is what you get.
Opponents take Racey lightly at their peril. He is tough as nails, and he does not back down when he knows he is right. He backs his subordinates, as I’ve seen him do on more than one occasion at public meetings when fishing guides angry about the baitfish importation regulations verbally abused fisheries staff.
Racey is also a fanatical angler and turkey hunter.
Deputy director Chris Colclasure is also a solid choice. Before joining the Game and Fish Commission, Colclasure served as director and assistant director of the Arkansas Department of Natural Heritage. It is a small agency that requires its director to be fully engaged with every aspect of its operation.
Colclasure has a smooth, easygoing style that puts a room at ease. He’s a natural compromiser and consensus reacher, and he is very comfortable among the wires and cables of policy.
One thing I really appreciate is that Colclasure has always been honest and open with me. He’s always given me straight answers, with no finesse, no varnish and minimal spin.
Either candidate is highly capable, competent and able to step in and manage the Game and Fish Commission tomorrow. Both are also highly likely to serve as director for more than three years, which is the average tenure of a director for wildlife management agencies in the Southeast. That would provide much needed consistency, continuity and long-term commitment.
There are, of course, applicants from outside the agency. Some come from the business world. One is retired military.
Like any other large, multifaceted organization, the Game and Fish Commission’s culture and the specialized nature of its mission demand an insider who knows all the players and the playbook. An outsider might have impressive credentials, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would take at least one year to figure out how all of the pieces fit together, how the turf is divided, how they connect and separate, and to be aware of all the potential, career-ending traps that compromise his or her viability as a leader before he or she even knew what happened.
Former director Hugh Durham is a case study. Durham, who enjoyed an illustrious career with International Paper Co., was capable and even visionary. He meant well and had all the tools to be great, but by the time he stopped shooting himself in the feet, he had no toes on which to stand.
At its core, the Game and Fish Commission is a service provider. It’s only real product is customer satisfaction. It is counterintuitive to try to run it as a profit center.
Also, if the commission believes it must hire a director from outside the agency, then that suggests the commission believes it does not have capable leaders in-house. That sends the message that the commission, past and present, has failed to develop internal leadership, which is one of the commission’s chief responsibilities.