Members of the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission want to review transcripts from last month’s timber theft trial before deciding on the fate of Parks Director Jeff Hutchinson.
The parks board talked about the trial and Hutchinson’s possible future at a special meeting this morning at Coonskin Park, where logger David Russell Bowen cut down 360 trees between May and July 2013.
Last month, a Kanawha County jury acquitted Bowen of charges he stole timber from Coonskin Park after making a verbal agreement with Hutchinson to clean up storm damage left over from the 2012 derecho storm. Parks board attorney Chuck Bailey told members of the parks commission that jurors may not have thought Bowen acted maliciously or intentionally when he cut the trees, as required under some of the criminal charges.
Bailey also said jurors were not allowed to hear evidence that Bowen had twice before been sued for stealing timber.
But the loss of the trial brought up longstanding questions about Hutchinson’s oversight of the operation at the time the trees were cut. Hutchinson has repeatedly said Bowen was not given permission to cut down more than 31 damaged trees, while Bowen maintains he had permission to take the timber.
“How much more money is this man [Hutchinson] going to cost taxpayers of this county?” demanded Margaret Zaleski, a frequent park visitor who first pointed the timbering operation out to parks officials. “As I calculate it, it’s now about a quarter of a million dollars.”
Zaleski and park visitor Nancy Ward asked the parks commission to fire Hutchinson.
Several members of the parks commission said the public had lost confidence in the parks director, and that they had too. “I have defended Jeff Hutchinson for many, many years,” said former parks commission president Anna Dailey, adding that the derecho cleanup they thought Bowen was doing had been mismanaged.
“People make mistakes, but I’ve lost confidence,” Dailey said.
However, current Parks Commission President Allen Tackett said members of the parks board were also partly responsible for the timber operation, because they went along with the verbal arrangement.
“If we’re looking for guilt, I believe every one of us in guilty to one extent,” said Tackett.
“Jeff, you failed,” Tackett said. “You failed miserably. But it’s hard for me to give someone the death sentence if he hasn’t had the resources to do the job properly.”
In the past, it was not uncommon for the parks commission to make arrangements to have volunteer work done in Coonskin Park without a written contract. Dailey said parks officials initially thought Bowen had agreed to help clean up the park as a donation.
Local activist Wanda Carney, who lives not far from Coonskin Park, agrees the timber operation was mismanaged, and that Hutchinson should lose his job. But she told the parks board he wasn’t the only one to blame.
“I disagree that the accountability stopped with Mr. Hutchinson,” Carney said. “The accountability stops with you.
“The taxpayers of this county deserve more than what is sitting on this board,” Carney said. She said she would resign if she were a member of the parks commission.
Members of the parks commission said several times they will have to decide whether to take disciplinary action against Hutchinson, but want to review transcripts of the timber trial before making a final decision.
Commissioners asked to put the subject on the agenda of their next regular meeting, scheduled for Sept. 18.
Reach Rusty Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 304-348-1215 or follow @rusty_marks on Twitter.