The operations manager of the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust has resigned.

Sonya Harris submitted a two-page letter of resignation dated June 19 and effective immediately. She cited multiple reasons for her departure, including disapproval of the trust operation, disappointment in the way appraisal contracts have been handled, lack of trust leadership and attempts by a state office to override the authority of her position and the trust.

“My decision is not an easy one based on my desire to see this project succeed and my passion to see justice for the residents of Tar Creek,” Harris wrote. “I feel that my authority and responsibilities as operations manager were stifled and I could not operate at my full potential for the benefit of the trust and residents involved in the buyout. My wish is that this project be given a ‘new start' in that, with this information, the trust might come together to recognize the problems and resolve them for the betterment of the project. However, until the problems are resolved, the trust is going to have great difficulty in completing the buyout in a reasonable length of time.”

Harris, hired as operations manager in September of 2006, also served as the facilitator of the trust's contracts regarding appraisals and review appraisals.

At the heart of Harris' decision to leave is frustration with a lack of communication between the review appraisal company and her office and, subsequently, what she believes is “outside interference” led by the office of the state secretary of the environment.

“The contract states that the contractor ‘coordinate directly and solely with the facilitator for the trust on all acquisition activities assigned to the aforementioned project unless prior written approval is received from the facilitator or the trust,'” Harris wrote. “It has been made clear in a number of instances that direction was given by the secretary of environment's office that overrode the instruction given by the trust and me. Neither I nor the trust can function adequately as an official body when outside direction takes precedence.”

Harris' resignation comes on the heels of an exchange of letters between trust chairman Larry Rice and review appraiser Terry VanTuyl in which Rice gave VanTuyl and Associates 30 days to correct contractual deficiencies - to include “consistent lack of communication and coordination with the contract facilitator, Sonya Harris, and the turnkey appraisal contractor, Cinnabar.”

Rice said in his letter that the performance of VanTuyl and Associates had reached a point where it has “created significant delays in the overall project to buy out at-risk residents of the Picher/Cardin area.”

Rice advised VanTuyl that a commitment to fully respond to all phone calls and e-mail communications within 24 hours was expected from the company, even if it required VanTuyl to delegate the responsibility to another representative.

Terry VanTuyl responded with an admission that he had been distracted and indicated that he would “be a better communicator.” However, he also said that Rice's request was “not realistic” and that he had no contractual obligation to do so, but would “make every effort” to reply to Harris within one business day.

In return, VanTuyl made his own requests.

“Please limit e-mails to matters which pertain to appraisal review,” VanTuyl wrote. He also asked that policy revisions and re-reviews be limited.

“The revision of appraisal policy has created far more ‘significant delays' than my communication skills,” VanTuyl wrote. “Request to re-examine an appraisal when the reason is ‘we feel the value is low' will be revisited but the professional opinion of a well-known and highly respected appraiser with 25-plus years experience is going to be given much more weight than the ‘feelings' of the trust. The purpose of the appraiser and the reviewer is to ensure the prices being offered for these properties is fair to both the property owners and the tax payers, not to cater to the ‘feelings' of the trust.”

In response to Harris' resignation and her allegations of interference, Rice wrote “I was very surprised (and regretted) to receive Ms. Harris' letter indicating her desire to resign immediately from her duties with the trust. I have not perceived any outside interference or disregard of the trust. The secretary of environment's office is very much a working partner with the trust (and the previous buyout) and I accepted the chairman's position based upon the predication, that (the secretary's office) would be our partner in this effort.”

Rice went on to say that Harris “deserves a lot of credit and sincere thanks for setting up the trust office and assisting the trust's buyout efforts to date.” Trust officials said today that the panel will discuss recommendations for Harris' replacement at the June 28 meeting.

“Vice chairman (Mark) Osborn will lead the effort to ensure buyout offers will continue without interruption until we have an operations manager in place,” Rice said.

J.D. Strong, chief of staff for Miles Tolbert, secretary of the environment, said today that “Ms. Harris' claims in her letter of interference from our office are the first I have heard. Without more specificity, I cannot fathom what she may be refering to.”

Strong said the secretary's office “stands ready to assist the trust in its daunting task and will continue to partner with the trust in accomplishing our mutual goal of getting Tar Creek residents out of harm's way as quickly as possible.”

Strong attends all trust meetings and represents the secretary as an ex-officio member.

Osborn had no comment today on Harris' resignatio, saying only that he had not yet had time to read the resignation letter he received Wednesday afternoon.