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Rhonda Crecelius, standing left and flanked by supporters, addresses the county council about her situation following Purdue University denying her status as a volunteer with the 4-H program. Crecelius had been a 4-H volunteer since 2006. Photos by Chris Adams

Supporters of ex-4-H volunteer ask for help

Council attorney: county has no legal say

February 20, 2019
Frustrated with a lack of answers from Purdue University, supporters of a long-time 4-H volunteer who last month was told she no longer could serve with the program, for an hour last Tuesday night addressed the Crawford County Council, asking if it could assist in their fight.

Prior to the supporters of Rhonda Crecelius, who was notified by Purdue on Jan. 7 that her volunteer status would not be renewed for the first time since she began volunteering in 2006, speaking at the council's regular monthly meeting at the judicial complex in English, Marcus Burgher IV, who serves as the attorney for both the county council and county board of commissioners, outlined what role the county has with the Purdue Extension Service.

Burgher said state law establishes an Extension office in each county and that the county council shall annually appropriate the amount of money it considers necessary to pay secretarial and clerical employees, travel expenses of the Extension educators (who are appointed by Purdue), rent, office supplies, equipment and incidental expenses. He further explained the county council may, but isn't required to, appropriate additional money for the salary and personnel costs of the Extension educators.

Crawford County 4-H member Payton Stephenson reads a letter at the Crawford County Council's regular monthly meeting last Tuesday night.
"So, I think it's important that you understand that your duties and obligations as a council are to provide some funding that you all deem appropriate for the everyday activities that we first mentioned, but anything beyond that is something that you would do on your own behalf as you choose to do that," Burgher said.

The commissioners on Dec. 27 approved an annual contract, just as they have in the past, for Extension services of interest, specifically to 4-H youth development, leadership and community development, agricultural and natural resources and health and human sciences, at a cost of $43,720 to the county, Burgher said, adding the council approved the funding for the contract, which runs for all of 2019, as part of the annual county budget.

"It is a valid and binding contract at this point moving forward, and that is your obligation to Purdue University as a county government," he said.

Burgher noted that, as he told a Purdue attorney who recently called him, the issues at hand are not county business. Having incorporated in 1969, the Crawford County 4-H Council is its own separate entity and, thus, would have its own legal recourse, he said.

County Council President William Breeding said, despite the county having no say in the matter, the board would be happy to hear anyone from the group who wished to speak.

"You know where we stand legally, but we're glad to listen to you, though," he said.

Robin Morgan, a long-time 4-H volunteer who has had two children come through the program, spoke first.

"It's about our kids, and that's what we're all here for. It's not to create major issues," she said.

The local 4-H program has lost a key volunteer, and other members still don't know the reason and are fearful others will also be dismissed, Morgan said.

"None of us really understand why we lost her," she said. "That's just kind of something that we want to know, because she has done so much for our kids, as well as the other volunteers."

Morgan said if it has anything to do with tensions during fair week, those tensions are normal, as people are hot, tired and stressed, but they all understand that and just let any frustrations roll off of them.

"I just wish we could get everybody together, whether the 4-H Council or Extension educators, Purdue, and get things figured out so we know the future of our volunteers," she said.

Breeding told the group he hoped they understood the council has been supporters of the 4-H program, pointing to the county helping make payments on the 4-H Community Park south of Marengo for years.

Burgher said he, too, personally supports 4-H but reiterated the county council "has no legal standing whatsoever to get involved in a dispute between Purdue University and the 4-H Council."

The discussion had remained calm until Councilman Jerry Brewer became the first to raise his voice when he said, "This is not a political issue. We've got a group of people that we represent — commissioners and council — begging for some help, and it's not a political thing."

Someone from the audience then asked why county officials cannot ask Purdue representatives to come to the county to provide answers, to which Breeding said that has been done but the invitation was declined.

Breeding's statement was questioned; however, later in the meeting, Morton Dale, the president of the board of commissioners, said he did contact Dr. Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension but Henderson rejected the invitation.

Brewer asked why Amy Nierman, director of the Purdue Extension Southeast District, didn't attend the January commissioners' meeting after he had invited her. He said she initially told him she was attending only later to tell him that she was to have a phone conversation with one of the commissioners and then didn't come.

Dale, the commissioner who talked with her, explained that Nierman said Brewer had invited her to the commissioners' meeting but she wanted to know if the commissioners had requested her presence.

"I said, 'No, the commissioners have not requested you to come to our meeting ... The commissioners' meeting is a public meeting. If you want to come to that meeting, anybody can come to that meeting,' " Dale said.

"I did not tell her she could not come," he said. "I just answered her question; we did not request her to come. Jerry requested her."

Speaking earlier in the meeting, Brewer, addressing Burgher, said Purdue isn't acting professionally by retaining an attorney and is "tearing our county apart" by not giving a reason for not renewing Crecelius' volunteer status.

Burgher again said the 4-H Council, as its own legal entity, needs to be the ones to spearhead any effort for answers.

Connie Holzbog said the 4-H Council has done that but with no success.

"We have been told no further discussion," she said.

"And what I'm telling you is I can't make them and neither can the council and neither can the commissioners," Burgher replied, adding the only thing the county can do, while it is several months away, is not fund the next annual contract with Purdue, which would be for 2020.

"I don't think there's anybody sitting around this table, including myself, that is opposed to the 4-H Club Council, but you are treading on an issue that is not within the powers and duties of this board," he said.

"Come on. Bring them on," Brewer said. "I think we have a right to represent the people."

Brewer said he understands Purdue selects the Extension educators but questioned why the commissioners could not write a letter formally requesting a change "due to the conflict and it doesn't look like there's any way it can be reversed."

Burgher, saying he was speaking from a legal standpoint, said doing so potentially could cause the county to incur liability, as well as litigation expenses.

Monica Stephenson, a member of the 4-H Council, asked if her daughter, Payton, who just moved up from mini-4-H to regular 4-H, could read aloud what she wrote for the county council.

"I have waited a really long time to be a regular 4-H'er," Payton read. "Now, this year is my first year ... (it) is ruined because our educators won't get along with everyone. Now, everyone is fighting and people like my mom who work really hard for 4-H are not being treated very nice. I don't understand why this is OK. Kids have to get along and be nice, but grownups don't. I want someone to make it better."

Sending her daughter out of the room so she wouldn't have to hear more of the comments, Stephenson said Purdue, not the 4-H Council, is to serve in an advisory role.

"As long as we are not in violation or breach of any of those things, then it should be our program to do with as we see fit," she said. "I say we should be able to pick who our volunteers are to run our program or at least have some sort of input on it.

"I'm getting tired of working really hard for a program that is for my kids and for all the kids of this community and then being told all of my opinions really don't matter, that I'm really not that valued and that I can be easily replaced with someone who will just do whatever they say," Stephenson continued.

"We should have some say somewhere somehow, and, if you don't have it and we don't have it, who has it?"

An emotional Morgan later said that everyone needs to come together to find a solution, remembering that 4-H is there for the children.

"We are adults, every one of us, and our kids are handling this better than what we are as adults," she said.

Brewer, noting that while the annual contract with Purdue has been funded, it has not been paid, motioned that the county council request the commissioners not sign the payment claim until one more effort is made to get Purdue officials to attend a joint meeting with the council and commissioners.

"Would that be a middle ground?" he asked, admitting that "almost sounds like blackmail. I don't like that term. I'm just saying it's a request. Could we request in writing from the county attorney, the county council president and the president of the commissioners, would they be willing to write a letter to Purdue, to Henderson, to please come down here? I'm not saying not pay it. I'm just saying, in the meantime, don't pay the claim."

Receiving no second, Brewer changed his motion to withdraw the part about not paying the claim. It again did not receive a second.

4-H supporter Toni Eastridge apologized to the county council for it being a soundboard for the frustration she and others are feeling.

"You're hearing all of this from us because we have not had a venue to be able to talk to anybody about it. So, you guys are getting the brunt of this, and I apologize," she said. "It may not even be the right place, but you have ears right now that are listening to us, so we're just kind of spewing at you."

Brewer also voiced frustration about the Extension Service's move from a county-owned facility in English to a privately-owned building south of Marengo late last year, implying the commissioners knew about the move ahead of time. He said the move wasn't fair to the county because the Extension Service, in its 2019 budget request, included money for utilities and other items for the entire building at English, which the Extension Service shared with the Crawford Soil and Water Conservation District and Crawford County Health Department.

Dale, whom much of the ire seemed directed, said: "I don't know where you get all your information. The only thing that I knew prior to them moving is I was told that they were looking for a place to move. The next thing I knew is they were moving."

The council, agreeing that the utilities and other items should no longer be in the Extension Service's budget, since they were for the old building, voted 6-0 (Lucas Stroud was absent) to transfer them to the SWCD budget. The amounts transfered were $4,310.53 for utilities (January's utilities have already been paid), $1,000 for equipment and maintenance and $300 for cleaning.

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