Ranger Whistle-Blower

Wilkinson details accusations against county

When John Wilkinson left an 18-year career in tech marketing to become a Travis Co. park ranger in 2002, he characterized the departure as an affirmation of his lifelong love of the outdoors and an ongoing adoration for Austin's parklands that began in the mid-1970s. "My first date [1984] and subsequent proposal to my wife [1985] both happened under the majestic falls at Hamilton Pool," he recalled in an e-mail.

Upon receiving the ranger badge, Wilkinson wrote, "I was expecting to protect and promote our resources for future generations to enjoy as much as I have." He says he was soon disappointed, though, by the professional culture he found among rangers and supervisors. His repeated filing of internal reports detailing wrongdoing made him an increasingly resented black sheep, he said, and eventually led to his voluntary but encouraged departure from the ranger staff. He left amid accusations that he had made a racist remark while issuing a citation to a park guest – but he has repeatedly denied that claim. "When I finally realized how pervasive the status quo was, I literally feared for my well-being and career and tried to lay low," he said. "By then, it was too late." Though Wilkinson says he was cited for exemplary duty on two occasions, county management has refused to discuss his employment file on the record.

Wilkinson said the lack of oversight created by the county's placement of the rangers, a law-enforcement organization, under the supervision of civilian bureaucrats with no law-enforcement experience at the Transportation and Natural Resources Department has led to the rangers becoming a "rogue enforcement organization." These are some of the indiscretions and inconsistencies (quoted from e-mails) Wilkinson says he reported internally while on staff:

"I said we should not be writing tickets on the lake for boat equipment violations when our enforcement boat was rife with violations of its own."

"I pointed out that marijuana and alcohol confiscated in the park should be turned in as evidence instead of being used to supply employee parties or as a tool for barter."

"I reported dereliction of duty when my partner missed a call to back me up because she was busy having sex – on duty – in a park office."

"I made the son of one of the department executives ditch his weed when I caught him smoking – on duty – at a park entry booth."

"I told my supervisor he should not use his county vehicle and its gas for personal, off-duty business after he reprimanded a ranger for the same infraction."

"I suggested that all rangers regularly hike park trails, as I discovered much of the illicit activity was occurring off the beaten path. This resulted in me being written up as anti-fat-people."

Joe Gieselman, TND's executive manager, declined to reply to these specific charges.

Wilkinson's final objection, calling the culling-hunt practices into question, was apparently the last straw with supervisors. When it became apparent that the guests' racism accusation would be used as a tool to encourage his resignation, he said, he decided to concede, and in 2005 he resigned. Wilkinson has returned to tech marketing in Austin but says he's "experienced severe recrimination" and is sure "this will only aggravate the situation." Still a frequent park visitor, he said that a few times rangers discovered he was there and "made things uncomfortable." Some rangers, Wilkinson claims, have even "taken to cruising by my office from time to time."

The county's assertion that his allegations are retaliatory is simply a cover for its wrongdoing, Wilkinson says, and by coming forward, he hopes not only to end the questionable culling-hunt practices before someone is injured or killed but to elevate the level of "common sense, public safety, and legitimate oversight" in the county parks and protected lands.

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