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Legal questions raised over Blunt's commission pick

Plattner is Presiding Commissioner in Saline County
Plattner is Presiding Commissioner in Saline County


Jefferson City, MO – Gov. Matt Blunt's latest appointment to the state Conservation Commission could be treading on legally questionable ground because of how long Blunt waited to appoint her to the panel.

Becky Plattner is to be sworn into office Thursday, two days after Blunt appointed her to the commission that oversees the Department of Conservation. The issue is not whom Blunt appointed, but when he appointed her.

The Missouri Constitution says that if a governor fails to fill a vacancy on the Conservation Commission within 30 days, the commission's remaining members shall pick someone to fill the unexpired term.

Commissioner Stephen Bradford's term expired June 30, and Blunt appointed Plattner as his successor 38 days later.

The governor's office and Conservation Department both maintain the appointment is legal, insisting the constitutional time limit only applies when a commissioner leaves office early.

But that is contrary to the interpretation taken by then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican like Blunt, when a similar circumstance arose 16 years ago.

When Commissioner John Powell's term expired June 30, 1991, Ashcroft waited until 30 days had passed and then sent the Conservation Commission a letter asking it to make the appointment while citing the constitutional provision. Ashcroft said he did not want to make the decision to reappoint Powell because of the perception his judgment could be clouded by a close personal and political relationship with Powell.

The remaining conservation commissioners then voted 3-0 on Aug. 2, 1991, to reappoint Powell to the panel.

When asked Wednesday to reconcile Blunt's position with that of Ashcroft's, a Blunt spokeswoman stood by the current interpretation but did not directly answer the question.

"I don't know what politics were in play at that time and I wouldn't be in a position to make a judgment on what Ashcroft did or did not do," said Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson.

The Department of Conservation also has switched positions, now agreeing with Blunt's interpretation although it appears contrary to the one the department followed in 1991.

"This language has never really been judicially interpreted," said Denise Brown, an attorney who is the department's assistant director. "We have a variety of people who are reading this at different points and are coming up with different interpretations. It all gets down to sentence construction and statutory analysis, but our interpretation today is that this appointment is legal."

Just to be sure, the commission theoretically could vote to also appoint Plattner. But Brown said there are no plans to do that when commission meets Thursday and Friday.

Plattner said Wednesday that she was unaware of the constitutional provision and hoped it posed no problem for her appointment.

The attorney general's office has not issued a formal opinion on the constitutional provision and the office declined Wednesday to make a statement about Blunt's appointment. Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, is running for governor in 2008.

Although Blunt's administration professes confidence in its action, others contend he likely is wrong.

"If I were the governor, I'd start being awfully nice to the members of the Conservation Commission with hopes that they would go ahead and fill that vacancy with the selection the governor is trying to appoint, because that appointment sure looks suspect," said Bruce Morrison, an attorney with the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St. Louis.

Blunt also has faced legal questions about a prior appointment.

The Sierra Club raised concerns late last year after Blunt named a fourth Republican to the Missouri Clean Water Commission despite a law stating that no more than three members of the seven-member panel could come from the same political party.

Legislators had failed to raise the three-member cap when they added a position to the commission in 2002. So the Senate this year refused to confirm Blunt's appointment of a fourth Republican. Instead, the Legislature passed a bill specifically allowing four members of the same party on the Clean Water Commission and Blunt reappointed that same Republican.

A Sierra Club official also expressed concerns about Blunt's latest appointment to the Conservation Commission.

"It clearly says if the governor does not make an appointment in 30 days, the commission should. He kind of sidestepped that and basically ignored the constitution," said Ken Midkiff, the state Sierra Club conservation chairman.