The Papio Missouri-River Natural Resources District took further steps Tuesday to rein in board member Scott Japp, who continues to clash with district staff and fellow board members.
First, the board's executive committee voted 3-0 to reject expenses that Japp claimed for hiring an outside lawyer to scrutinize the district's actions — a flat $5,000 retainer to Omaha lawyer K.C. Engdahl last fall and a $1,450 bill from April for legal and copying fees.
Japp said the NRD staff routinely fails to provide him with the information he needs to do his job, so he has to hire his own lawyer for research.
“I asked staff to provide me with documents, and the staff has not,” said Japp, who represents Washington County and parts of Burt, Thurston and Dakota Counties. “I asked our legal counsel for a legal opinion. He refused.”
Japp said he still has Engdahl helping him get information that he otherwise was unable to get.
NRD general manager John Winkler said Japp gets all the information to which he is legally entitled and, in fact, overloads his office with requests for information.
Winkler said the district in February began tracking the cost in staff time to fulfill Japp's requests. Extrapolating from that, he estimated that Japp's requests cost the district more than $55,000 a year. Japp, a second-term board member, was first elected in 2009.
Board member Rich Tesar asked: “So, $200,000 (during Japp's tenure)?”
Japp said before the meeting that the estimate actually lends support for his decision to seek outside counsel.
“According to Mr. Winkler, that's $1,000 a week,” he said. “So ... apparently paying legal fees outside is a lot cheaper than having staff do it.”
Board member Jim Thompson doesn't sit on the executive committee, but he urged it to reject legal work “for who knows what purpose.”
“It would be a violation of state law for us to pay this,” he said.
After that vote, the committee then voted 3-0 to approve a resolution finding that Japp's “alienating manner, and his extreme and reckless assertions and accusations ... are a signal that his agenda is to interfere with the NRD, and that he has no genuine interest in working cooperatively or in a civil way to benefit either his sub-district or the NRD as a whole.”
It was the first time the executive committee has had to meet in years, Tesar said.
“When we meet, you know it's serious,” he said.
But it wasn't Japp's first public flogging. In April, the board censured Japp for what it called a pattern of rude and abusive behavior toward district staff and other board members. Two weeks later, Japp sent a letter to Attorney General Jon Bruning asking State Auditor Mike Foley to investigate a number of alleged improprieties in NRD accounts.
That prompted a district-wide memo from Winkler regarding what he called an “unfortunate but continuing issue.”
“I know many of you who are exhausted from hearing and trying to satisfy imperious and incessant demands, rants and ravings and are tired of being falsely accused of incompetence, dishonesty, unethical and illegal behavior or deeds,” he wrote.
In the end, Foley found no wrongdoing. And Winkler would later say that several of Japp's accusations amounted to defamation.
In a response to Winkler's memo sent a month later, Japp suggested that the low morale among NRD staff members was Winkler's responsibility.
“You need to change and improve what is going on, or maybe the board needs to consider changing management if this (does) not improve,” he wrote.