The conflict between a metro-area natural resources district and one of its board members is escalating over that official's attempts to intervene in the construction of a northwest Omaha dam site.
At the same time the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District is trying to buy property for the new lake, board member Scott Japp is making a pitch to the same landowners to acquire their mineral rights.
Japp, who has clashed repeatedly with the district, said he represents a company that wants to quarry topsoil there.
Fellow board members and district managers accuse Japp of obstructionism — by trying to complicate the buyouts — and of a conflict of interest.
The 11-member board voted in May to approve a $43 million bond issue for Dam Site 15A, which will flood 225 acres for a new reservoir at 168th and Fort Streets. Seventeen landowners' properties are in its path.
Board member John Conley said Japp's latest move sheds new light on his request last June for a 300-page report on soil data at the dam site.
“It's more than a conflict of interest — it's outright interference with the ability of the district to go forward,” he said. “It's another layer of property interests that would have to be dealt with.”
District officials met with the Nebraska Attorney General's Office last week for guidance on whether Japp broke any laws or professional rules, General Manager John Winkler said.
“It was a very productive meeting,” he said. “We're going to formulate a menu of legal options for the board to consider. I can't tell you exactly what.”
Chairman Fred Conley said the board will review the options at the January board meeting.
When a World-Herald reporter contacted Japp on his cellphone, he said he was in an area without service and couldn't discuss the matter. He didn't return subsequent messages.
His lawyer, K.C. Engdahl, whose Waterloo address is listed as the company's point of contact in a proposed lease agreement, declined to comment.
It's hard to determine Japp's connection with the purported topsoil quarrier. In a Nov. 25 letter to a landowner obtained by The World-Herald, Japp identifies himself as a representative of a company called Canudigit LLC, but not as an NRD board member.
The business is not incorporated in Nebraska. Checks with similarly named companies in other states yielded none with business pending in Nebraska.
“I have been asked to offer a royalty for the aggregates and topsoil,” the letter says. “This royalty would be (additional) revenue to the price you would receive from the sale of the land to the PMNRD.”
Board member Rich Tesar said Japp has created “a terrible conflict.”
“I would hope it would be deemed illegal,” he said.
David Klug of Gretna voted with Japp to oppose funding for the dam, but he said his colleague was out of line.
“I also didn't vote for this project,” Klug said. “But a supermajority of the board did. In my mind, that means a supermajority of the people who are represented by them want to move forward with this.”
Winkler sent a letter to landowners on behalf of the district, warning them to beware of Japp's “mischief and trickery.” He cast doubt on the “carelessly written” lease agreement, suggested that there was little market for topsoil or fill dirt in the area, and warned that encumbering leases would complicate ongoing negotiations, raising the potential for the district to take the land by eminent domain.
This is not the first NRD dispute involving Japp, a two-term board member who represents Washington County and parts of Burt, Thurston and Dakota Counties. He has tangled frequently with fellow board members and has accused the NRD staff of withholding records from him and mismanaging the district's finances.
The board voted in April to censure Japp for what it called a pattern of rude and abusive behavior. It also approved a resolution formally condemning Japp's “alienating manner” and “reckless assertions” and sent letters to local governments and news outlets that said Japp does not speak for the district.
Japp has since stopped voting at board meetings.
The current blowup comes shortly after Japp filed a claim against the district for $42 in Sarpy County Court, seeking reimbursement for a trip to a neighboring natural resources district. The board denied that claim, as it did a $5,000 claim Japp submitted in July 2012 to cover Engdahl's retainer.
At the time, Japp said hiring outside counsel was the only way to pry loose documents from the NRD. Japp dropped the $42 claim when the NRD's lawyer opted to contest the matter.
Said Fred Conley, “This really never stops. If it's not this, it's something else.”