Sandoval, who takes office Monday, told the board earlier this month he would not support the reappointment of Tony Lesperance.
“We don’t want to go into the legislative session with a conversation about the director,” Dale Erquiaga, a senior adviser to Sandoval, said during a press briefing last month. “We want to go into the legislative session with a conversation about agriculture.”
While the board hires the director of the Department of Agriculture, state law says the choice must be approved by the governor.
The board, currently with 10 members, meets Wednesday in Reno.
Chairman Alan Perazzo, a Fallon dairy farmer, said he doesn’t expect a vote defying the incoming governor.
“This is no different than any other administration coming in,” he said. “He wants to make a change.
“I know some board members are kind of frustrated with the whole thing,” he said, but added he believes the panel will support Sandoval’s decision.
“Our obligation and duty is to protect agriculture,” Perazzo said “I don’t see any benefit to butting heads with the new governor.”
But others said Lesperance should stay at least through the legislative session that begins in February to defend the agency’s budget and any attempt by the administration to fold it into another department.
They said Sandoval’s transition team didn’t raise any objections when they met with the board and agriculture groups, and they were surprised when the administration later said Lesperance would not be reappointed.
“How can we as a board have any trust in this incoming administration that they aren’t going to throw us all under the bus?” said Hank Vogler, a Eureka sheep rancher and board member.
“Do you think a lot of people are going to be standing in line to take the job?” he asked. “Does it make a difference if we do it tomorrow or in six months?”
Lesperance, 75, has said he would retire after the legislative session.
“If the governor chooses not to have me there and the board goes along with it, I believe it puts the department in some jeopardy,” Lesperance said.
The department and Lesperance in particular has been criticized in two recent audits. Legislative auditors faulted the agency for lapses in record keeping and oversight, while an anonymous employment survey requested by Lesperance found fewer than half had a favorable opinion of him. Others described the work environment as hostile.
Lesperance was appointed by Gov. Jim Gibbons in 2008.
Vogler and fellow board member Ramona Morrison suggested that Sandoval’s opposition to Lesperance stems from a policy the board adopted seeking greater input on statewide water issues. They point to his appointment of Pat Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to his transition team as support for their theory.
The water agency is pursuing plans to import groundwater from rural Nevada to Las Vegas.
“This is all about water,” Vogler said. “That is the lifeblood of rural Nevada.”
Morrison, the daughter of the late Wayne Hage, a Nevada rancher and leader in the state’s sagebrush rebellion movement that pushed for more local control of public lands decades ago, said she respects Sandoval and wants to work with him, but takes exception to firing Lesperance.
“I don’t know if pressure was applied because Tony was an able advocate for agriculture,” Morrison said. “I for one am not going to vote to fire him.”
Erquiaga dismissed their arguments that the flak over Lesperance was linked to water.
“The idea that this has anything to do with water policy is pure fiction,” Erquiaga said. He called the claims “a manufactured excuse to keep a director who no longer belongs at that department.”
“We have two audits that suggest change needs to be made at the top,” he said.