Nome meeting closure prompts debate over CDQ privacy
Amid continuing tensions between community development quota groups and their regional village residents over the impacts of Bering Sea pollock trawling on salmon stocks, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. has barred a long-time critic from its property, meetings and direct contacts with board and staff after a July 31 incident in Nome.
Already years-long, the feud between Tim Smith, president of the Nome Fishermen’s Association, and the NSEDC has continued since the minor confrontation was reported in the pages of the Nome Nugget and as recently as the Aug. 27 city council meeting.
The dispute’s current round began at a public session of NSEDC’s fisheries development committee on July 31 when Smith was threatened with arrest for “eavesdropping,” by a Nome police officer who also ordered him to leave the session when he refused to turn off his digital recorder.
“’As a law enforcement official, we’re allowed to record at all times,’” Officer Michael Yant is heard to declare on Smith’s recording, which he posted on Youtube. “’You’re recording me now, which is illegal to do. You need permission, a warrant, permission from the courts to record.’”
Smith’s wife Rita, a local schoolteacher who was taking written notes for the NFA, was also ordered to leave the session.
Tim Smith was warned in an Aug. 8 letter from an NSEDC attorney that he is not allowed on the CDQ group’s property or to attend any of its meetings and should only communicate with its board of members in writing through the attorney.
“Any violation of these restrictions and any threats or confrontations with board members or employees will be reported immediately to the proper authorities,” declared attorney Howard Trickey in the letter that was copied to the Nome Police Department. “It is not NSEDC’s intent to limit your participation in any of NSEDC’s programs.”
Kenneth Jacobus, Smith’s attorney, said Officer Yant was wrong. In comments published in the Nome Nugget, Jacobus noted that eavesdropping, generally in law, is considered to mean a secret recording and that Alaska’s eavesdropping statute, AS 42.20.310, allows anyone to record their own conversation.
Nome Police Chief John Papasodora did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
NSEDC spokesman Tyler Rhodes said that while the session was publicly advertised and a public comment was on the agenda, it was not a “public meeting” in the sense of one held by a city council of legislative committee hearing.
“As a private nonprofit we are not required to have the public at our meetings,” Rhodes said Aug. 17.
Smith, who was the only person to offer public testimony prior to a report from the Department of Fish and Game, recorded his own comments through the confrontation despite NSEDC’s long-standing no-recording policy.
Smith complained that while Norton Sound “had 30 years of very, very poor salmon runs,” the problem had not drawn the attention of state officials until it reached Alaska’s population centers.
“Now that it hit the road system it’s an issue that brings the governor and the commissioner of fish and game out to do a press conference on it,” Smith said, referring to a July 20 news conference at which Gov. Sean Parnell and ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell announced the formation of a special team to research salmon stock problems.
Smith said the Pilgrim River “is definitely an endangered species situation” with a return of only 27 salmon through that date and only 44 the prior year. He urged NSEDC to begin enhancement rather than research or salmon counting programs.
“NSEDC has been part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Smith said. He concluded his comments asking for a response from the committee.
When none was forthcoming, Chairman Oscar Takak called for the ADFG report. As a state biologist began speaking NSEDC attorney Kyan Olanna asked Smith to stop recording. The meeting was temporarily recessed and Officer Yant arrived shortly afterward.
In later interviews, Rhodes indicated that NSEDC financially supported the Nome Fishermen’s Association’s operation of the nearby Hobson Creek Hatchery for several years, including $350,000 from 2005 to 2008. He said financial support was terminated when the association failed to receive an ADFG permit to collect eggs for future incubation projects and because the association did not meet NSEDC grant reporting requirements.
Rhodes also referenced NSEDC’s 2010 annual report, the most recent published. Among various fisheries projects, the report notes that ongoing salmon egg-planting projects in various Nome-area waterways began in 2004 but says 2010 returns in most cases indicate “a very poor survival rate.”
In a statement prepared at the request of the Nugget and published with an account of the July incident, the NSEDC declared that it would not accept “disruptive, abusive and threatening behavior directed toward its board members, staff and public” who attend its events.
In an Aug. 9 letter to the Nugget, NSEDC President Janis Ivanoff wrote that the group was “forced to have an individual removed who became disruptive” after refusing the request to stop recording. She claimed Smith became “verbally abusive,” though no foul or threatening comments can be heard on Smith’s recording.
“Those attending NSEDC’s meetings should be free to participate in the proceedings without fear of an audio or video recording of them later being published and/or utilized for unforeseen purposes,” Ivanoff added without explanation.
Rhodes, the NSEDC spokesman, said that the group records its meetings only to accurately prepare minutes and destroys its recordings afterwards.
He and Ivanoff noted that Smith is appealing a court ruling on his 2009 lawsuit against NSEDC challenging the results of its board elections, in which he unsuccessfully ran for a seat.
“While Smith will likely argue that NSEDC is actively working to suppress its critics, this is not the truth,” Ivanoff wrote.
In an Aug. 19 response to Trickey, Smith said the attorney’s letter contained “false allegations and misstatement of facts” and also referred to the “defamatory nature of the allegations” relative to the July 31 meeting that had been published in the Nugget.
Smith also wrote that NSEDC is required by Internal Revenue Service regulations to make “tax documents” available to the public during normal business hours and that the group has not yet responded to his February 2010 request for that information.
Smith also copied Trickey’s letter to Nome Police Chief Papasodora, noting the attorney’s warning that Smith’s violation of the NSEDC’s directive to the “proper authorities.”
“I am unaware of any legal authority for Mr. Trickey’s directives and assume that it is nothing but lawyerly bluster,” Smith wrote.
Smith also noted his allegation of NSEDC’s violation of the federal tax code.
“I am confident that NPD has no desire to aid and abet NSEDC in violating any laws,” he wrote, also asking that the chief inform Smith if he expects his department to respond to respond “with an enforcement action to reports of any of the acts listed” in Trickey’s letter “so that we can be clear on the legality of that potential action by the NPD in advance.”
The letter debate in the Nugget is continuing and at the Aug. 27 Nome City Council meeting Smith asked for assurance “that the same thing won’t happen again,” with reference to the July meeting.
“All I’m asking for is that they desist from charging me with breaking nonexistent laws,” Smith said in an email to this reporter.
Coincidentally, Mayor Denise Michels and Chief Papasodora were traveling and missed the meeting. Councilwoman Mary Knodel said Smith asked if he would be arrested if he attended the next NSEDC meeting.
“We didn’t know what rules the police office follows so we didn’t answer,” but directed the city clerk to get an answer for Smith, Knodel said.
Emphasizing that she is not an attorney, nor interested in NSEDC affairs, Knodel suggested Smith may have a right to attend the group’s meetings partly depending on whether a CDQ group is a public or private corporation but also based on local residency.
“We’re all members of the CDQ group, anyone who lives here. We’re all stockholders as far as I’m concerned, except we didn’t buy stock,” Knodel said.
Rhodes indicated the legal relationship between village residents and their CDQ group is not clear.
“Maybe at the community level, not the individual level,” he said.