MR. STARR: I'll start with Ralph. This is an interview with Ralph Fischer at his home in Beatrice, Nebraska, on October 31, 2014, as part of the NRD Oral History Project. Ralph, I'd ask you to give a little run-down of your career and so forth.
MR. FISCHER: Gayle, I was born on March 9, 1944, and lived in Wymore, Nebraska, and graduated from high school from Table Rock, Nebraska, in 1962. I went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln undergraduate and then College of Law. And I graduated from the College of Law in 1968. Before graduating, my last year in law college I interned at the Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and I did, you know, small projects and worked around and met the people there. When I graduated from law school then, the gentleman who was the lawyer for the Commission, or a staff person with law experience, wanted to add another position and asked me and Warren Fairchild, who was the head of the Soil and Water Conservation Commission at that time, a state commission, anyway they hired me after graduation to be the staff legal person. After 1969, in 1970, then, I moved from the Commission to private practice in Beatrice, Nebraska and I was in private practice for about nine years when a local Beatrice family-owned group of companies and businesses hired me to be the understudy for their then-head guy. And he retired, then, a year and a half later and I became the -- whatever the businesses needed, you know, the president of companies or the -- a director of companies, that sort of thing. I did that until I retired in 2011. That family company was called Scully Estates, mostly landowner businesses. And I retired in 2011 and here I am today on Halloween of 2014.
MR. STARR: Right. You may have already answered this, but what factors persuaded you to work for the Soil and Water Conservation Commission?
MR. FISCHER: I had -- while in law school, one of my favorite courses was Professor Harnsburger's Water and Natural Resources, which was really a seminar-type course for a couple of semesters, one semester at least. And I had become interested in the work being done in the state in the line of soil and water conservation. My grandfather on my mother's side, he ran the water plant in -- for Wymore and Blue Springs, Nebraska, and he was always interested. He talked about water issues and water quality issues. And I suppose that's why I originally took the seminars. So, plus then working, interning at Professor Harnsburger's recommendation, that got me further interested, and things were a bit (indiscernible) then. Warren Fairchild, Warren was a very bubbly personality, and he said that there were some things coming up the next two or three years that were going to change things and that I should come on board and be a part of it.
MR. STARR: Prior to the decision to proceed with the NRD legislation, what were the discussions that took place and what factors were involved in making the decision to go ahead with it?
MR. FISCHER: When I started, Warren Fairchild principally was already interested. He wanted to do something. And the discussions were that there were all these fractured districts in Nebraska set up mostly on political boundaries, either counties or in some cases just townships, and that they weren't coordinated. Their work was not coordinated, as far as soil and water conservation water issues. And they had fractured powers. Heck, one was just a mosquito abatement district. You know, others just dealing with the drainage aspect of it because there are areas of the state where there's too much water and the problem is getting rid of it and having to build ditches to drain, and they wanted money to build the ditches. So, you form a district so you can tax people.
MR. STARR: Right.
MR. FISCHER: And Warren's general idea was he wanted some more -- some districts formed with more inclusive duties and powers and somehow formed on watershed lines, like Little Big Blue, the whole watershed of the Little Blue or the Big Blue from start to finish. And there was -- and the talk was, about getting it done, was it was political and it was -- there were legal issues, some things had to be changed to make it happen legally. Politically, there were people strung out across the state who needed to be talked into doing this, right? You remember those?
MR. STARR: Oh, yes.
MR. FISCHER: And when I started, they had just sort of started with meetings with more than one person. Warren had been around and he had talked to -- one-on-one with people, I think, you know, around the state in some of these different districts, which I imagine other people have mentioned to you.
MR. STARR: Yeah.
MR. FISCHER: You know what those districts are that were involved.
MR. STARR: Sure. Sure.
MR. FISCHER: So, it was -- and then, when I got there, then we -- the talk was I was to work on taking these different districts and I'd, you know, talk to people and say include these or not. And that was a whole process about which types of districts to include. Warren, you know, wasn't aware of specific legal issues too much or, if he was, you know, he didn't know what -- how that affected the actual things you could do. Principal among those are elected officials. You can't just terminate the term of an elected official. So, that's a whole (indiscernible), that's a whole problem in itself. Another one was that some of these districts had bonded indebtedness. And you know, taking one area's bonded indebtedness for specific projects, like drainage in one area, and then making other landowners in other land areas responsible for those bonds and all of that was very tricky. And the political aspects of dealing with the members of the boards of these districts throughout the state, I mean, that I didn't get involved. Well, some, but Dayle Williamson and Warren Fairchild, and maybe you were involved in some of that, Gayle. Gayle Starr.
MR. STARR: Some, yeah.
MR. FISCHER: But these meetings to convince people that the idea was a sound idea and it could be accomplished. And I was -- I would help with that, but I was principally tasked with “get the words on paper” that would take all these districts somehow and make them into what, you know, NRDs, natural resources districts, put together mostly by watershed concerns and take care of all the (indiscernible).
MR. STARR: When the decision was made to proceed, and then they said, “Ralph, draft this bill,” what guidance were you given?
MR. FISCHER: That. What is sort of what I just discussed. That it should be more inclusive in nature on responsibilities. This new district, that there would be a number of, should have more responsibility that crossed over and the responsibilities really affected each other. And then, they should have the powers necessary to accomplish the goals of all the merged types of districts. And this was not something that, when we started actually drafting that, we knew exactly which districts were going to be in it and how it was going to be done. We'd work along and run into something and then had to be worked out politically.
MR. STARR: I assume that, as you drafted versions of it, there were changes along the way. You said, well, this won't work. Try this.
MR. FISCHER: Yes. Yeah. Principally, it was the -- well, I don't know what went -- principally, we had the problem of the strongest districts, and they tended to be the irrigation districts and irrigation-related districts. They were the strongest districts. They didn't want to change.
MR. STARR: Right.
MR. FISCHER: They had personnel and were strong minded about what they were doing. They also had the bonded indebtedness and obligations to the federal government. And that, you know, that sort of problem would come along. You'd just have to decide, well, we've just got to forget about those. And that was the kind of thing that would happen.
MR. STARR: Yeah. Did you have any assistance in drafting it or were you a solo job?
MR. FISCHER: I didn't. It was -- no, it was pretty much me. I had an assistant, Lee Orton. Did you run across Lee?
MR. STARR: Sure.
MR. FISCHER: Talk to Lee? Oh, yeah. Later on, and actually I had Lee when I sort of knew I'd be leaving.
MR. STARR: Uh-huh.
MR. FISCHER: So, Lee, I sort of trained to go on. But, no, I didn't have any assistance, but I would go talk to the Commission's assigned lawyer in the Attorney General's Office. I talked to him probably three or four times. I said, “I think this is an issue. What do you think? What do you know about that?” And we'd work together a little bit. And -- but mostly it was sitting down, taking the enabling legislation for all of these different kinds of districts, and trying to mesh it together into one enabling law; one set of responsibilities, duties, powers, money-raising capability; how their boards work; how they elected every (indiscernible). Worked on all that without violating any constitutional provisions about term of office and bonded indebtedness, things like that.
MR. STARR: Yeah. What things were left out of the 1357 that you personally would like to have included? That -- what wasn't included for whatever reason?
MR. FISCHER: You know, in the end at that time, with how far you could go at that time, I thought it was pretty complete. And again, give Warren Fairchild his due on that, on him being able to handle the politics of it. And Maurice Kremer and Herb Nore were senators at that time, and they said, you know, yeah, we can make that do. Because at that time, I didn't think including irrigation districts was a good idea at that time. And I thought, given everything, it was a pretty bold move politically to proceed forward on that.
MR. STARR: You covered some of this, but what political issues as, you know, I'm sure that Warren or you and others talked to the governor and senators and local officials. What political issues came up that you had to either avoid or take care to deal with?
MR. FISCHER: The Department of Water Resources at that time was a government appointment. They are a little different than a commission.
MR. STARR: Right.
MR. FISCHER: And not stepping on their toes and keeping them satisfied that we were not getting in their territory was a political issue. We knew that. And I'd say that it didn't turn into a problem. I guess because we were all aware that that was an issue. Another one was there were some strong personalities, especially out west, on some of these districts, and it was a matter of showing them how this would be even better for them, which it was I think, better for them than what they had. And so, these types of individuals and boards and finding out who it was that made boards work and working with them. I would say those were the principal things.
MR. STARR: What issues or things were left out of the bill that you personally would like to have included?
MR. FISCHER: I can't recall any.
MR. STARR: Okay. And you've probably answered this to some extent. What are your recollections of introducing this concept or discussing it with the governor, the senators, the local officials, and et cetera?
MR. FISHCER: I thought it was all very positive. The governor was supportive. The -- Maurice Kremer and Herb Nore, I don't remember C. F. Bolton (phonetic), but -- and George Syas, but I think those introducers, at least three of them, took care of the legislature. And if they needed more talking points, they'd invite somebody to a meeting or something, be there for -- to give assurances on some things. The thing, they took care of the legislators pretty much. They worked with them, and I don't remember having to work with other legislators much.
MR. STARR: Among the controversial issues around the implementation time was the boundaries. You know, how do you determine the boundaries and the actual details of the merger? How do you fit things together? How did you envision dealing with that in the legislation?
MR. FISCHER: It was tricky. That was tricky. As far as the boundaries, my advice was stick with something. And stick with the watershed, you know, river, watershed areas. Stick with that. And just say, exceptions, pretty much no as much as possible. So, have a position and stick with it as far as the boundaries go. People didn't like that particularly, but if you were consistent and stuck with it, mostly I think that flew. Mostly, that worked. I can't tell you after 45 years, and Lee Orton had to work with some of the actual implementation that I didn't have to. And I know he ran into a lawsuit, couple of lawsuits maybe, and ran into some issues that you need to change this boundary for some reason other than watershed. Maybe Lincoln or Omaha and some strong political boundaries and not crossing over some of those things. Those, I think, and you just had to tell people, “You're not losing your job.” But when you go to get reelected when your term's up, you're going to be reelected by a larger base of people maybe. Although, in the elections, they ended up setting up some sub-district areas for -- so you had representation for across the district. That was provided for. And that helped in that.
MR. STARR: As I'm sure you were aware, between when 1357 was passed in 1969 and the actual implementation, which got delayed until 1972, there were numerous amendments along the way. What was your take on that process?
MR. FISHCER: I was gone in 1970 and was not a part of that process. Warren Fairchild, I think, was gone.
MR. STARR: Yeah. He left in about --
MR. FISCHER: Before '72, wasn't it?
MR. STARR: Before '72.
MR. FISCHER: Yeah.
MR. STARR: (Indiscernible) I can't remember exactly when, but --
MR. FISCHER: I'm not sure they were. So, I don't know if they were all necessary or not.
MR. STARR: Yeah. One of the significant amendments were made was regarding the boundaries, how boundaries were determined and so forth. As you've seen what's happened since 1970, as a citizen and as an attorney, what's been your observation of what the NRDs have done?
MR. FISCHER: Oh, my principal experience is with the Big Blue NRD. Ron Fleecs was the head of that for much of the time I was interested. And I thought it was performing the way they were supposed to, at least this one under Fleecs, the Lower Big Blue Natural Resources District. I thought was going ahead the way it was envisioned.
MR. STARR: Yeah. Since the implementation in 1972, there have been amendments not every year, but a number of amendments up until last year. I don't know what knowledge you have of any of those, but -
MR. FISCHER: No, not much. You'd have to tell me about those, I guess.
MR. STARR: Well, looking back from 45 years or however many years later, what are the things that you wish that you had done differently or, golly, that would have worked better if we'd have done something different there?
MR. FISCHER: I can't think of any. I'm sorry. I don't know. The process was never meant to be we're going to pass this and this is going to be in stone what it was. I mean, we knew they would have -- the future would bring changes and there'd have to be some changes made. I can't think of anything.
MR. STARR: That's true of almost any significant legislation.
MR. FISCHER: Yeah.
MR. STARR: Looking back, are there any other recollections that you'd like to make a matter of record or think about what happened or what didn't happen?
MR. FISCHER: As far as the whole process of kicking off the whole natural resources districts, if we
had -- I don't know. I don't know kind of what went on in some of the information meetings and how it was all presented and all, but I know it got passed. And it was pretty much what had been envisioned and told to me, what was trying to be accomplished and within what the law would allow, we did a pretty high percentage of what we set out to do.
MR. STARR: When you got a final draft and took it to the Attorney General's Office for their review, did they make many changes? And I don't know, was it Ralph Gellen (phonetic) at that time or --
MR. FISCHER: Yeah, it was. Yeah. That's the Assistant Attorney General I worked with. You know, he was pretty content. He was pretty content with things. I mean, he went through it. I don't know what he thought politically, you know, whether it's what he would have done.
MR. STARR: Well, that wasn't his job.
MR. FISCHER: That wasn't his job. And he gave -- he put it in bill form and selected -- I remember he did that and I don't remember much, if anything, else. Mind you, in working to the point of me giving him something that I said, “Well, this is the form we want to proceed with,” I had met with him a couple or three times to prepare for that moment with him.
MR. STARR: Sure.
MR. FISCHER: So, I -- it was mostly what had to be done as far as formatting to make it into a legislative bill.
MR. STARR: Well, Ralph, this is about all the questions I have. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we close?
MR. FISCHER: No. I mean, not for the record. I'd like to know what happened to a couple of people and what they did, and it's mostly people-related. I don't have anything to add. I may have some questions for you about what some of these changes were, so, no, I -- that's it.