The Silver Affair: The Limits of Public Service Discretion

Abstract

The California Bureau of Public Lands is responsible for the management of all state-owned lands. It contracts with private timber companies to harvest timber. As part of the Program Analysis team, Gil Silver is designated to review the Bureau’s contract with a major timber company— Thompson Timber Co.—after intense opposition from small lumber companies and farm, labor and conservation groups. These groups claim the Bureau gives preferential treatment to big companies who ignore conservation requirements. Silver is tasked with reviewing the record and making recommendations for how the agency should proceed. During his work Silver faces intense resistance from field officials and from the local advisory board that is stacked with supporters of the present regime. Silver gets the information and develops a range of options to open the bidding process and encourage conservation. Silver bypasses the local office to present the proposal to the Director who tells Silver that if Silver can sell the proposal, the Director will support it. Silver battles intense collusion between local staff and big timber companies and works outside normal channels to build support with local communities and smaller companies. He gains reluctant support from the larger companies on the basis of their fear that a worse policy going through. The Director accepts the recommendation and charges Silver to implement the program. Silver must significantly change local staffing and membership on the oversight board to move the new reforms. The central office still delays the policy after large timber and legislative allies oppose it. To fight this Silver works with local groups and small companies to mobilize counter support for the policy. The Director accepts the policy but after implementation begins, large timber violates the new policy with the tacit support of the Director who is angling for a higher political position. Silver stands firm and again mobilizes external and media support. The Director negotiates through an intermediary with Silver and accepts Silver’s resignation in return for keeping the policies.

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