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Former fisheries chief has one word for IDNR: Trust

Mike Conlin, an unlikely possibility for director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (caught here fishing one morning before a conference at Rend Lake) thinks rebuilding trust in the IDNR is key for the new administration. | Dale Bowman/For the Sun-Times

Trust or bust.

As in, rebuild trust in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or else see the department go bust.

Rebuilding trust is what Mike Conlin kept coming back to when I called.

It’s no mystery that my IDNR director would be Conlin. In his decades in Springfield, mostly as the fisheries chief, he learned the minefields of Illinois politics, yet speaks bluntly.

‘‘It sure needs to be reshuffled,’’ he said. ‘‘They need boots on the ground, not chiefs in the office.’’

The buildup of deputy directors led to a series of problems during IDNR director Marc Miller’s term under Gov. Pat Quinn. Conlin said it should be an assistant director and ‘‘maybe five big offices.’’

‘‘They need to get rid of all that crap,’’ Conlin said. ‘‘They need to get lean and mean in there and put that in people in the field.’’

That’s why I called.

Conlin said he had not been contacted by the Rauner team, though I know a prominent outdoors businessman put Conlin’s name up front when Rauner’s people asked for advice.

‘‘If called, I would talk to them,’’ Conlin said.

He thought Brent Manning, who had a Hall of Fame run under two Republican governors (Edgar and Ryan) would be the right guy.

‘‘With all the problems, Brent would be the guy, perfect guy, at least for a couple years,’’ Conlin said. ‘‘I think he is willing to help if they want advice and counsel.’’

As to his own counsel, Conlin said, ‘‘Without the trust, you are dead in the water. You have to have the backing of strong groups. They feel like they have been shut out.’’

By trust, he means fundamentals of saying specifically what funding would go for when a hike in fees is planned, and listening to constituents.

‘‘Trust in government, be it state or federal, is lacking in the public at large,’’ Conlin said. ‘‘Local CPO or biologist, they trust them and will work with them, but the department as a whole, I don’t know. They will trust their local guy, but beyond that?’’

Here is why Conlin will probably not become director.

‘‘It is a sticky wicket with the income-tax thing,’’ he said.

That is, the income-tax increase Rauner is letting end, which will leave a hole in state revenue. That means less funds for the IDNR, already operating with less than half the funding at peak during Manning’s tenure.

‘‘It is going to be tough. It is going to be tough as hell,’’ Conlin said. ‘‘Hopefully he will get somebody who will get some trust back.’’

From the administrative side, trust comes from being responsible.

‘‘I do not want to be a director like Miller was, like the directors have been for the last 12 years,’’ Conlin said. That’s not so much a shot at Miller, but rather at the structure where the ‘‘budget chief doesn’t answer to the director’’ but to the governor’s office.

Asked if this was on the record, Conlin said, ‘‘If that puts me in jeopardy, then I should not be in the mix.’’

Email: straycasts@sbcglobal.net

Twitter: @BowmanOutside