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Agriculture panel submits 2 nominations for secretary

by Glen Chase | February 5, 2015 at 2:15 a.m.

The Arkansas Agriculture Board voted Wednesday to nominate two people as candidates for the state's next agriculture secretary.

The board voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Asa Hutchinson choose either retired Arkansas National Guard Gen. Ronald Chastain or the department's current deputy secretary, Cynthia Edwards, to replace Butch Calhoun, who left the post in December. Later in the day, Edwards asked the board to withdraw her name from consideration.

After the board's quarterly meeting, Chairman Aubra Anthony of El Dorado said that with the General Assembly in session, the state's agriculture industry needed someone with the stature of the secretary in place to represent its interests.

Under the state law that created the Arkansas Agriculture Department, Act 1978 of 2005, the Agriculture Board selects the secretary, whose "name shall be submitted to the Governor for confirmation." The secretary serves at the pleasure of the governor.

J.R. Davis, the governor's spokesman, wrote in an email Wednesday that the governor's office "is actively working on a selection" and would coordinate with the board on naming a new secretary. Davis provided no further details.

The next secretary would be the department's third. The first, Richard "Dick" Bell, served from 2005 until his retirement in June 2012, when Calhoun assumed the post.

Asked about the nomination after Wednesday's board meeting, Edwards deferred answering questions.

Later in the day, she sent a letter to the board asking that her name be withdrawn from consideration. Asked about the reasons behind the letter, Edwards declined to offer further comment.

In an email, Chastain also declined to comment, saying he didn't think it would be appropriate for him to talk about the nomination.

But Agriculture Board member Allen Bedell of Hot Springs, who served on the nominating committee that met Wednesday morning, said both candidates would be a strong secretary, given their experience and knowledge.

Bedell said the nomination committee was unanimous in its choices.

Chastain was chosen because of his work as an agriculture liaison for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., since his retirement from the National Guard in 2010 after a 38-year military career as well as his overall knowledge of how government works, he said.

"All the characteristics we can put with Ron Chastain, we can put with Cynthia," Bedell said about Edwards' work with former Arkansas U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln's staff and her time with the state Agriculture Department.

He and Anthony agreed that the department and board need to have a secretary in place.

"The nominating committee was concerned that with the Legislature in session that we don't know as a department, from day to day, about legislature being introduced that would be of importance to us."

Anthony said the state's agriculture secretary needs to have a broad range of experience given the nature of agriculture in Arkansas, where it created $20.1 billion in economic activity in 2012, according to the latest figures available.

"Government programs do directly affect agriculture, and the families and people and jobs that are agriculture related," Anthony said. "The timing of this is more of an imperative because of the legislative session."

Act 1978 gave the Agriculture Department responsibility for the State Plant Board, Forestry Commission, Livestock and Poultry Commission, Aquaculture Division, the Abandoned Pesticide Advisory Board and the land surveyor. Its other responsibilities include the Dairy Stabilization Program, farmers markets and the Arkansas Grown program, alternative-fuels development, organic farming and the Century Farm program.

At the time he left the post, Calhoun was being paid $101,913 annually. He started at $97,000 per year.

Business on 02/05/2015

Print Headline: Agriculture panel submits 2 nominations for secretary


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