A Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District board member said his recent censure for unprofessional conduct was an act of “character assassination” by a “rogue group of NRD directors and staff.”
The board voted April 11 to censure Scott Japp, who represents Washington County and parts of Burt, Thurston and Dakota Counties, for what it said was a pattern of rude and abusive behavior toward district staff and fellow board members.
The censure vote is the latest episode in a long-simmering dispute with the second-term board member. Japp said it's further evidence the district is trying to stifle debate about how it is managed.
Japp is among a contingent of Washington County residents who oppose a long-term proposal to build dams in the Omaha area, saying he doesn't believe dams provide enough flood protection for the cost.
He also said the NRD works too closely with developers who have an interest in the land — to the taxpayers' detriment.
For example, Japp pointed to a deal some years ago with Dial Realty to develop some property next to the Youngman Lake dam site at 192nd Street and West Dodge Road.
Dial defaulted on its half-million-dollar obligation, but the company ceded the land it had put up as collateral, NRD General Manager John Winkler said.
“They didn't just walk away with $480,000,” Winkler said.
Another point of contention is how the district should collect money from other local governments in the Papillion Creek Watershed Partnership, a group that coordinates stormwater management and flood control.
Japp claims the agreement requires the other partners — Omaha, Papillion, Bellevue, Bennington, Boys Town, Gretna, La Vista, Ralston and Sarpy County — to pay one-third of project costs up front.
The agreement stipulates that the money come from a fee on new development, and a struggling housing market has meant the revenue has not met projections, board Treasurer John Conley said.
Japp said it doesn't matter how the other entities get the money — they just need to get it.
“I don't care how the partnership arrives at the money. I don't care,” he said. “They can write us a check.”
But Winkler said that demand is not warranted.
“Nowhere does it say that the jurisdictions need to pay one-third of each reservoir as it is constructed,” Winkler wrote in an email exchange this week with the board. “That was never the intent.”
Japp's style frustrates some of his colleagues, including Conley.
“Since Japp's come on this board, it's become a very unpleasant place to be,” Conley said. “And it doesn't need to be that way. His predecessor did a fine job.”
Conley said the district's dam-site partnerships with developers have always “been open and above board” and the agreements decided at meetings.
“Realistically, if we don't do (the projects) when development pressure is there, we don't do it at all,” he said.
Conley said Japp's accusations have “one snippet of truth,” but the rest is false.
In response to his prodding, Japp said, district management withheld key information from him about district projects.
Case in point: A year ago, then-Chairman Rick Kolowski sent a memo instructing staff to get his approval before fulfilling Japp's records requests.
Japp petitioned the Nebraska Attorney General's Office, which said that he had the same rights under the open-records law as anyone else and that it appeared the district already had released the records in question.
But there was a reason for Kolowski's directive, Winkler said: Japp ties up staff time with voluminous information requests — a number that routinely exceeds that of all the other board members combined.
Winkler also said Japp's requests are frequently unreasonable, such as when he asks employees to perform original research on tight deadlines. Some staff members also have complained about the abrasive manner in which Japp makes the requests, Winkler said.
“(Japp) was never denied access to any piece of information that he had a rightful claim to get,” Winkler said. “There are some things he's requested — he confuses the right to have access to reports and information with directing the staff to conduct research for him.”
Current board Chairman Fred Conley said Kolowski's directive is no longer in place. And Japp acknowledged that “things have gotten better.” But he still feels he's being denied information.
“I think he's probably the only one who feels that way on the board,” Fred Conley said. “Nobody's against having opinions, open debate.”
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