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Pennsylvania Game Commission headed toward a reckoning

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(The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Game Commission looks ahead with a new executive director, but recent turmoil has legislators even more skeptical of the agency’s competence.

The commission has its sights set on tightening up policies and working more with the legislature, but critics want deeper changes.

“Priority No. 1 for me is to enhance and build upon the relationship that the Game Commission has with both legislators as well as those in the hunting community,” Commission Executive Director Steve Smith said. “The primary way to do that — especially with legislators — is by making sure that they’re aware and appreciate the work that our dedicated staff is already doing.”

Smith took the reins of the commission earlier this week when former leader Bryan Burhans resigned after the Board of Commissioners discovered he had a business relationship with several employees, moonlighting as a wellness coach.

“We have incredibly dedicated individuals doing great work on behalf of the commonwealth and its wildlife,” Smith said. “My goal is to make sure that continues.”

The commission will ask the governor’s office to review the its supplemental employment policies, he said, to avoid future problems.

Other problems, however, remain. Legislators were miffed about the agency hiring a $10,000-per-month lobbyist and Burhans’ personal consulting business.

“I truly believe that there needs to be a reckoning,” Rep. David Maloney, R-Boyertown, said. “If we’re really gonna get something done, then we need to be center-focused and be productive to get to that end. I believe if some people are in the way, they need to be removed or reminded as to what their duty is.”

Maloney is the Republican chair of the House Game and Fisheries Committee and grilled Burhans previously over his consulting business. In his weekly newsletter, Maloney argued the commission “had been sidelined by a culture of personal pet projects and vendettas against anyone daring to speak out.”

He pointed to contentious decisions from the commission like Sunday hunting, unnecessary out-of-state travel by officials, and a lack of transparency that concern him. He’d like to see the opinion of sportsmen carry more weight in commission decisions and suggested they should have the ability to elect commissioners.

“The commissioners have been so complicit over the years to many of the things that have taken place,” Maloney said. “We can’t continue to have commissioners who disregard and disrespect sportsmen — and then in many ways play stupid to the questions that get asked of them.”

He also worried about what the future could hold.

“Right now, the Game Commission is rich in cash,” Maloney said. “That won’t always be the case. You create a monster that kind of runs out of control: Does it crash and we have to start over? I don’t want that to happen, we need to reform this now and get back to the business of what they were intended to be.”

Smith, who has been with the commission since 2008, may have to lead the agency during an era of greater legislative scrutiny.

“This isn’t over — this is only gonna probably get more ugly,” Maloney said. “There’s more and more things coming to me almost weekly, if not daily.”