Ombudsman finds Board of Fisheries violated law on Upper Cook Inlet vote
First it was scheduled to be in Kenai. Then it was yanked back to Anchorage. Now, the location of the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting is up in the air again.
The Alaska State Ombudsman, which investigates complaints against state agencies, found in a report released Sept. 3 that the Board of Fisheries violated the Open Meetings Act when the members voted this past January to reconsider the location for the 2020 meeting and that the manner in which the vote was taken called into question whether chair Reed Morisky and other members “acted in good faith.”
The fix? They’ll vote on the location again at the upcoming work session from Oct. 23-24 in Anchorage.
A confidential complaint was filed with the ombudsman’s office in May 2019, according to the report. A draft investigation was finished in July, and the Board of Fisheries responded on Aug. 15.
“The Ombudsman recognizes that the decision to set a meeting location may be, in some circumstances, a purely ministerial action,” the report states. “However, in this instance, the Board itself has noted that ‘one of the most divisive issues it faces almost every year is not a regulatory subject, but rather where to hold the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting.’ As such, the Board should exercise increased diligence to ensure that its decisions on this issue are beyond reproach, to include strict adherence to the Open Meetings Act.”
In a response to the findings, Morisky wrote that the board will reconsider the location at the upcoming work session, when the board normally discusses locations for upcoming in-cycle meetings, and will issue notice in accordance with the Open Meetings Act.
At the same time, the board will reconsider a policy previously passed that would formally set the Upper Cook Inlet meeting locations on a rotating schedule between Palmer/Wasilla, Anchorage and Kenai/Soldotna to “determine if it has any future viability,” Morisky wrote.
“It is within the board’s purview to revoke a policy,” he wrote.
The Upper Cook Inlet meeting location is a perpetual source of controversy. With nearly half the state’s population and large stakeholder groups in sport, commercial, subsistence and personal-use fisheries, the Cook Inlet basin is one of the most heavily fished areas in the state.
The Board of Fisheries makes allocation and fisheries management decisions that are often controversial, and the Upper Cook Inlet meeting is the longest, lasting about two weeks. Stakeholders often have to travel to the location to participate in board proceedings.
Kenai Peninsula residents have been asking for the Board of Fisheries to hold a meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula for at least a decade. The last time the board held a meeting there was in 1997; the meetings have been in Anchorage since.
Stakeholders contend that it is more expensive and onerous for them to travel to Anchorage, where they have to pay for hotels and travel long distances through the mountains in the winter, than for Mat-Su and Anchorage residents, who can stay at home and attend the meetings.
Board members have consistently voted to keep the meetings in Anchorage, citing the expense of holding it on the Kenai Peninsula or the neutrality of Anchorage as a meeting location.
At the March 2018 meeting, board members voted 4-2 in favor of holding the 2020 in-cycle meeting in Soldotna and to adopt a proposed policy to rotate the meetings on a regular basis between the three major communities of the Cook Inlet basin. However, the following January at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim in-cycle meeting, Morisky raised the issue again in the middle of the meeting and called a vote, which proceeded 4-3 in favor of moving the meeting back to Anchorage.
The ombudsman’s report cites the lack of public notice on the debate at the January meeting as a major reason for the finding.
“Despite the paucity of the notice given of the addition of the UCI Finfish meeting location to the January 2019 meeting, interested members of the public managed to learn of the change and travel more than 100 miles to attend,” the report states. “Then, the Board Chairperson by his own admission told representatives from the Kenai/Soldotna area that the matter wouldn’t be taken up — only to introduce the matter for a vote later the same day, after they had gone.
“This not only violates the spirit and the letter of the Open Meetings Act, it brings into question whether the Board Chairperson and members acted in good faith.”
The composition of the Board of Fisheries has changed since the January 2019 meeting. Former board member Robert Ruffner, who lives in Soldotna and advocated for the meeting to be held on the Kenai Peninsula, has been replaced, as has board member Al Cain, who proposed the policy that would rotate the meeting locations between the three communities. Former board member Orville Huntington has moved to the Board of Game as well.
The governor has appointed three new members: Marit Carlson-Van Dort of Anchorage, John Wood of Willow and Gerard Godfrey of Eagle River.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].