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Battle for 4-H volunteer continues

January 30, 2019
The fight for a longtime Crawford County 4-H volunteer, who Purdue Extension will no longer allow to serve with the organization, continued Thursday night during a packed Crawford County Commissioners' meeting.

Community supporters of Rhonda Crecelius, who was told Monday, Jan. 7, that her volunteer status would not be approved and, instead, handed a letter to sign asking for her resignation from the 4-H council, not only made their displeasure with their Purdue Extension educators known, but also asked their elected officials to join them in battle.

"Right now, the situation that we have before us is that we have Purdue Cooperative educators, who, in our opinion, are overstepping their authorities and they have demonstrated to us that, if we have a volunteer, no matter how dedicated they are to our program, no matter how hard they work for our program, if they have any kind of disagreement with what (Purdue educators) are saying, they will not allow them to help our program any longer," Monica Stephenson, whose 4-H council status is pending, said. "Now, that bothers us on many levels because we are a community program to benefit the children of our community, and we work very hard to do that. To have people who don't even know us to not even entertain a discussion about the validity of one of our key volunteers not being approved as a volunteer is very disturbing to me.

"So, my question to you, as our elected representatives, what steps are our commissioners willing to take?" she asked.

Commissioner Morton Dale said he had previously reached out to Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension, requesting his presence at a public meeting. However, Henderson, according to Dale, said he would not entertain the request to discuss the issue.

"The Board of Commissioners, through Indiana Code and our responsibility, we have no power to overrule the 4-H council or the Purdue program," Dale said.

Stephenson, understanding that neither the county council nor commissioners had governing power over the program, reminded the board that it did have certain things within its jurisdiction it could do to "apply pressure to Purdue on the behalf of the people" in Crawford County.

"We've done that in the past when there has been an issue with Purdue and, that seems to be the only thing that gets their attention," she said. "You can use your elected powers to go to the county council, discuss the money that we give from our tax-paying dollars to fund those positions.

"They chose to not use the building that our county provided for them," she continued. "I guess, in this Purdue world that we're living in, they hold all the cards. Because we pay their staff, we provide them a secretary, we provide all of their needs, whether it be paper for their copier, toner or a desk to sit at, and then they get to dictate every move we make? I want to be Purdue when I grow up."

Dale said that, on a personal level, he sympathized with the issue but, to address it as a commissioner, he would like to consult options with legal counsel before making any kind of commitment going forward.

"We would very much like you to do that, because we may be small but we are mighty when we stick together," Stephenson said. "I need to have my county officials fighting for me. That's why I'm here tonight; that's why all of these people are here tonight, because we all feel the same about this program. We all feel that we're being slighted."

Commissioner Dan Crecelius echoed Dale's suggestion going forward.

"My personal feeling is that there has been an injustice done to the county, and I certainly support your effort and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help, but I'll have to reiterate what Morton says," he said. "We'll have to follow statute, and we'll need to get legal counsel."

Rhonda Crecelius then addressed what her removed status would mean for other community events she has organized in the past.

"I have taken over the Sorghum Festival that brings dollars into this community," she said. "I do the Holiday Gift Show in December that also brings in money to this community. We've had Purdue down here before; we can request Purdue come again. That's what you're going to have to do. You guys and the county council, you're going to have to hold the money and get them down here."

Crecelius said the last time county officials did just that, both educators were removed from the county.

"They're only getting one side of the story," she said. "They didn't ask me any questions when they gave me my letter. They just handed it to me and expected me to sign it. They have to come down here. You're not going to have a program.

"Those two educators do not live in this community," she continued. "They chose not to move here. They have no ties to this community, so they don't care what happens to us."

Dale reassured the supporters present that the board was not in any manner refusing to support the effort.

"We filed the previous request you all made; we're going to file this request with the council and see what we can do moving forward," he said. "We'll do what we can do within the bounds of what our authority is."

Stephenson said the primary goal of the group is to stop the unfair removal of volunteers without any valid complaint or any type of checks and balances.

"They're not accountable to us for anything," she said. "They don't have to tell us why they denied her. They don't have to tell us why they deny any of us. They can just randomly choose. There's no rhyme or reason, and we would like that to stop.

"We have, in the past, gone through a series of educators that have been sub-par, to say the best, and the commissioners and council have had to step in," she continued. "I don't want you to sell yourself short and believe when they tell you, you have no jurisdiction over them because you do. You do have the power to control those budget dollars. You do have the power to work with your council to make sure that Purdue understands that you will not tolerate your community being treated as sub-par individuals when all they have done is dedicate themselves to your program. We work harder than any of the paid Purdue Extension staff, and we do it all because we love our kids and we love our program and what it stands for, or, at least, should stand for. So, when I tell you that we, as taxpayers, are not happy with the situation going on, I hope you are taking that very seriously."

Rhonda added, "Jason Henderson will come down here if you put some pressure on him, and that's what we are asking you to do."

Dan Crecelius agreed, saying, "I think that's a reasonable request."

A list of concerns of the group as well as the 4-H council are to be handed over at the next county council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 6 p.m.

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