Stoystown resident Len Lichvar has waited 15 months to find out if he will take a seat on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, to which he was nominated by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003.

But, his wait may soon be over.

The governor’s nominees need to be approved by the state Senate. But in this case, the Senate has been denied the chance to vote on Lichvar because Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona, is opposed to his nomination. Because he is blocking that vote, Jubelirer now is being blamed for a developing situation that could result in the fish commission no longer being able to function.

The matter has become more than a local dispute. Although there are 10 seats on the fish commission, four of them are vacant and six commissioners are required to conduct business.

That means that if one misses a meeting because of illness or other circumstances, the commission cannot operate.

That situation could occur as early as this week. The commissioners are scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday in Harrisburg.

Lichvar was nominated after the resignation of Huntingdon’s Rozelle Stidd. His supporters have labeled Jubelirer’s opposition as concession to wealthy Jubelirer contributor Donny Beaver, who has clashed with Lichvar over the issue of public access to trout waters.

Efforts to reach Beaver for comment were unsuccessful, and a telephone message left for him was not returned.

Beaver is the founder of the Spring Ridge Club, which has purchased and leased exclusive fishing rights to a number of central Pennsylvania waters. The club’s efforts to keep the public off a portion of the Little Juniata River in Huntingdon County is the subject of an ongoing court battle.

The club’s recent expansion into Bedford County’s Yellow Creek watershed has brought direct conflict with the Johnstown-based Mountain Laurel Chapter of Trout Unlimited, of which Lichvar is a founding member. The Mountain Laurel chapter has worked for several years on habitat improvement projects to enhance Yellow Creek’s trout fishery, and is now trying to thwart Beaver’s efforts to lock up fishing rights in the area.

Although the two have an obvious difference of opinion, Jubelirer’s office characterized the allegations that Beaver is the sole opposition to Lichvar’s nomination as “malicious fiction.”

“He is somebody who raises concerns,” Jubelirer aide Dave Atkinson said of Beaver. “I wouldn’t check him off entirely. But, I’m certainly going to say his view doesn’t have any more weight than a sportsman from Huntingdon County or an angler from Bedford County.

“We know him. We talk to him. We’ve been involved in trying to iron out his problems. But, the same thing is true of a lot of folks across the district.”



Regional differences

Atkinson said Jubelirer has kept the Senate from voting on Lichvar because the senator’s district – Blair and Bedford counties – does not support the Lichvar nomination.

“Rozelle Stidd was our constituent,” Atkinson said. “When the vacancy was created, we had individuals in the senator’s district who had expressed interest in replacing Rozelle, and people supporting their bid. We weighed in on behalf of those individuals. The governor then nominated Len Lichvar. I have to tell you that there has been very little support coming to us from our district for him.

“The support that we’ve seen has come from, by and large, the Greater Pittsburgh area and a scattering of other places. That’s reflective, I think, in part, of the membership of some of the organizations that are supporting him. Even though this nomination only relates to a geographic location, some of the groups supporting him have membership from a wider area. For instance, we get what appear to be environmentalists from the southeastern part of the state.”

Atkinson said it would be foolhardy for an elected official, especially one with Jubelirer’s experience, to side with a single backer against the widespread opinions of the voters in his district, as Jubelirer is alleged to have done.

“Years ago, when there were all sorts of issues of big complexity around relating to jobs and the economic climate, there was actually more discussion, more debate and more argument over filling a couple of game commission vacancies than about those issues,” he said. “Somebody who has served around here for a long time knows you don’t go into the sportsmen’s world casually, and you certainly don’t take the side of an individual who is opposed to the views of the sportsmen across the district.

“If we had petitions from the district saying ‘Len Lichvar is our guy,’ that would be a different story. But, there are very few; just singles here and there.”



Lichvar’s fate

Lichvar still believes his philosophical differences with Beaver are behind his stalled nomination.

“In a meeting I had with Sen. Jubelirer face to face, I asked why the senator would not support me,” Lichvar said. “He informed me that he could not support me because his constituency does not support me, and when I asked if that constituency included Donny Beaver, I was told ‘Yes, it does’ and that there were others, but that those names would not be released to me. That’s what I was told directly by the senator himself.”

Lichvar said he has received between 30 and 35 letters of support from “individuals and a broad range of sporting interests from across the state of Pennsylvania. Those letters are all referencing my qualifications for the position and do not reference anything other than that.”

Lichvar’s nomination, which has been bounced back and forth several times between the governor’s office and the Senate, was recalled in December just as the legislative session expired. To remain alive, it must be resubmitted after the Senate returns next week. But, the governor’s office declined to say last week whether it would resubmit Lichvar’s name.

“His nomination is still under consideration, but we’ve gotten no indication from the Senate that he is confirmable,” said governor’s spokesman Chuck Ardo. “The governor has 90 days to either resubmit his name or somebody else’s.”

Sen. Richard Kasunic, a Fayette County Democrat who represents Somerset County, is among Lichvar’s supporters.

“We did send a letter to the governor asking him to re-nominate Len immediately after the session ended in December,” said Kasunic aide Will Dando. “But, all we can do is make recommendations to the governor’s office. It goes to them to actually make the nominations to the Senate.”

Dando declined to discuss why Lichvar’s nomination has stalled.

“There’s a disagreement, I believe,” he said. “The senator supports Len. There’s no other comment.”



Quorum for commission

Even if this week’s commission meeting comes off without a hitch, trouble is on the horizon. The terms of two commissioners will expire next month, which will leave only four active members on the board. The two who are leaving would be allowed to serve for six months to avert an emergency, but it usually takes longer than that to get a new commissioner through the nomination process and approved.

As an example, Stidd resigned on June 20, 2003, and it took until October 2004 for the governor to send Lichvar’s name to the Senate.

That means the fish commission could grind to a halt by mid-summer, and might not be able to operate for months after that, a prospect that has alarmed sportsmen, who also are concerned the Lichvar stalemate will hold up appointments to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which soon also will have two vacancies.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs has asked Rendell and Jubelirer to move swiftly to break the impasse.

“We feel a qualified man has been nominated for the position, and just during the past two weeks we have sent letters to the governor’s office and Sen. Jubelirer requesting that they move forward with this nomination and get the position filled,” said Melody Zullinger, executive director of the PFSC. “Our main thing is, right now, the fish and boat commission has all those vacancies and they are one person away from not being able to conduct business.”

Senate confirmation of Lichvar would be a quick fix for the problem, and Jubelirer’s opposition to it has been labeled a roadblock to filling all the vacancies. But, the governor’s office could nominate candidates for other vacancies, even if the Lichvar situation remains unsolved.

“We respect that the fish and boat commission is running into a bit of a problem in terms of warm bodies available for a quorum,” said Atkinson. “But, we’re not responsible for the other vacancies that exist, nor soon-to-be vacancies.”

So far, Lichvar said, both sides seem to be playing a political game of chicken.

“The governor’s people and Jubelirer’s people are staring each other down, and nobody’s blinked yet because they haven’t had to,” Lichvar said. “Soon, someone is going to have to.”



Joe Gorden can be reached at jgorden@tribdem.com or 532-5080.

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