ESCANABA, Mich. (WZMQ) – At a meeting on Tuesday, the Delta Conservation District continued its discussion about a potential conflict of interest involving the District Manager.
On August 23, the Conservation District Board of Directors voted unanimously to seek legal services from the Attorney General. The situation revolves around 1,400 acres of Cornell Forest property, which was purchased by the county through the Natural Resources Trust Fund in 2017.
“The Natural Resources Trust Fund is for everyone in the state of Michigan,” Board Chair Joe Kaplan told WZMQ 19. “These are moneys that are provided by royalties from oil and gas exploration throughout Michigan, and there’s millions and millions of dollars that are available to communities to protect natural resources, to acquire land.”
According to Kaplan, that purchase was negotiated by District Manager Rory Mattson.
“While he was negotiating on behalf of the county to purchase those 1,400 acres through the trust fund, evidently he was also negotiating for the purchase of property right adjacent to that property on the south end, which includes most of the easement roads to access that property,” said Kaplan.
On August 15 of this year, Mattson asked the County Board of Commissioners to modify an easement across his property. Kaplan says the modification limited the public’s access to the forest.
“Our concern was a conflict of interest with Mr. Mattson’s private property, his personal interest, and that of the district and also the county, because we represent the county on that forest land,” he said.
On August 11, the Delta County Administrator asked the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) if the easement modification would affect the grant agreement. DNR Grants Manager Jon Mayes replied to the administrator on August 17, two days after the Commission meeting.
At Tuesday’s Conservation District meeting, Kaplan read the Mayes’ response, which says the modification would reduce the land’s value and “would almost certainly represent a breach of the project agreement.”
“I would caution the county against taking any action to diminish the rights of the public for the current or future access or to the use of the Cornell Forest property,” Mayes said in his response.
“We agree with the state,” said Kaplan. “Any diminish of those rights, we would see that as a huge loss to our community. We just felt that a permanent change to this easement is something that probably should’ve been tabled and reviewed by attorneys.”
According to Mayes, possible “remedies” to the situation include “repayment of grant funds to the state.” The Conservation District Board has already sent its request to the Department of the Attorney General.
Mattson declined WZMQ 19’s request for comment.