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Lawmakers ax longtime LRC director Fry

South Dakota legislative leaders Wednesday asked for the immediate resignation of Jim Fry, long-time directory of the non-partisan Legislative Research Council.

By Bob Mercer

Republic Capitol Bureau

PIERRE — The director of the South Dakota Legislative Research Council planned Wednesday to announce his October resignation following the revealing of an audit report, but legislators sent him packing immediately.

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Jim Fry went to work prepared Wednesday morning. His resignation letter was ready and signed in the pocket of his blazer.

The Legislature’s Executive Board was scheduled to receive the official audit report and recommendations from a review by National Conference of State Legislatures staff regarding the performance and management of the Legislative Research Council.

Fry spent 13 years as director for the Legislature’s nonpartisan, professional staff. That was the second-longest tenure by a director, behind only predecessor Terry Anderson, who served 18 years before taking a similar post for the Wisconsin Legislature in 2000.

Fry, 65, decided he would end his career after reading the NCSL report. The board’s operations subcommittee met for two hours in closed session Wednesday morning to discuss the report.

Fry gave his resignation letter to the board’s chairman, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel. Maher began the main meeting at 10 a.m. by announcing Fry’s decision. His retirement was to take effect Oct. 11.

The full board met for several hours in closed session. At mid-afternoon three members — Maher; Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg; and Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, the board’s vice-chairman — went from the meeting room on the fourth floor of the Capitol downstairs to the LRC offices on the third floor.

There they informed Fry they wanted him to pack his things and be gone from the office by day’s end. By 4:15 p.m. he was standing outside a back side door of the Capitol with his belongings in a small pile. Left behind was an annual salary of $104,335.

The trio of Brown, Maher and Carson made another trip downstairs Wednesday afternoon. They met with Fred Schoenfeld, the LRC’s chief fiscal analyst. He was offered the job of LRC director on an interim basis.

The four men returned upstairs to the closed meeting. Schoenfeld accepted. He had previously planned to retire effective June 8 and had informed Brown about it. The plan already was in place for him to groom another LRC fiscal analyst, Annie Mehlhaff, as his successor.

August marked the seventh anniversary of Schoenfeld joining the LRC staff. He described himself Wednesday as “an energetic 74.”

“The reason I decided to do it was one of continuity. The staff is better off having someone in there familiar with the staff’s strengths and weaknesses,” Schoenfeld said.

Schoenfeld’s annual salary as fiscal chief was $80,183. Asked when he starts as director, Schoenfeld replied: “Tomorrow morning. That was my question, ‘Do I wear my good suit?’”

He added, “I feel bad about that (Fry’s resignation). Jim’s been a good friend to me. There was nothing I could say or do that was going to turn those guys around.”

Fry said he considered retiring last summer, before the Executive Board decided to seek the review. Fry said that decision by the board was “a complete surprise.” So he stayed to see the review through to its conclusion.

“We’re moving forward,” Carson said as the meeting concluded.

The NCSL report covers 55 pages including the supplementary material. The main flaws found by the reviewers were dissatisfaction with LRC staff’s errors in bill and amendment drafting and the office’s general approach of non-partisanship.

Fifty of the 105 legislators participated in NCSL’s official survey. That raised a question for Sen. Larry Lucas, D-Mission. Lucas also noted that ratings were consistently higher from Democrats than Republicans for Fry and the LRC staff. Democrats consistently rated them at 4 or higher on a 1-5 scale, while Republicans were in the 3-plus to 4-plus depending on the question.

The report makes 12 recommendations. The staffing recommendations include hiring a drafting lawyer, a legal editor-proofreader and another information-technology person. The board decided to wait on those steps until a permanent successor to Schoenfeld has been hired and has time on the job.

The reviewers were specifically asked by the board to assess adding partisan staff, but the report concludes the LRC staff should be strengthened first and partisan staff “are not required to fulfill the kinds of services desired by legislators and legislative leaders.”

The report, however, specifically faulted the lack of performance appraisals for the LRC staff.

The board in 2010 directed that appraisals be done but it didn’t happen. Fry said Wednesday he didn’t see the point of appraisals because there wasn’t any ability to offer corresponding changes in compensation for employees.

Before accepting the LRC job in 2000, he was a division director for the state Revenue Department.

“This was great fun until about three years ago. About three years ago it stopped being fun. They see the role of the LRC in a way that I do not,” Fry said.

He said a review five or six years ago would have been helpful. “We had no idea the perceptions had reached this point. I don’t think the perception matches the reality. The quality of work is excellent,” he said.

“I did it (the job) consistent with my philosophy. I did it consistent with how I thought a non-partisan staff should be. They’re entitled to have a guy who does it their way,” he said.

The report’s conclusion included this analysis: “Term limits, rapidly evolving technology and other trends have impacted the legislative workplace and altered the demands and expectations that legislators have of LRC staff. Unfortunately, the LRC has not kept pace with this changing landscape and the quality and responsiveness of some of its services have suffered. The Legislature’s Executive Board and legislative leaders also have missed opportunities to set clear objectives for LRC staff and enforce accountability when LRC services and performances have not met expectations.”