Board votes to keep Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage
The tug of war over the location for the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting seems to be over — with Anchorage as the winner.
After going back and forth over the location for more than a year, the board members voted 4-3 Oct. 24 at their annual work session to keep the February 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage.
They also voted unanimously to drop a policy previously adopted that recommended the board rotate the meeting every three years between the three major communities of the region: Palmer/Wasilla, Anchorage and Kenai/Soldotna.
Board members Fritz Johnson, Gerad Godfrey and Marit Carlson-Van Dort voted against the motion to hold the meeting in Anchorage, with members Morisky, Israel Payton, John Jensen and John Wood voting in favor.
Board members primarily cited cost and the neutrality of Anchorage as a meeting location for the decision at the work session. The board last met on the central Kenai Peninsula for a full meeting in 1999; it met there for a work session in 2016.
At its annual work session in 2017, the board voted to hold the 2020 meeting in Anchorage; in March 2018, the members reconsidered and voted move it to Kenai/Soldtona.
The board later revisited the decision in January 2019, but after objections from the stakeholders about a lack of fair notice, the Alaska State Ombudsman investigated and ruled that the board needed to do it again — this time with fair notice.
The governments of the cities of Kenai and Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough offered in a joint letter to provide the board with free meeting space, with an eye toward making the decision based on cost easier.
The area has enough restaurants, hotel rooms, transportation options and airplane service to meet the needs of the board, the city managers and borough mayor wrote in the joint letter. Multiple other commenters wrote that the cost for stakeholders coming from the Kenai Peninsula is higher than those who live in Anchorage or the Mat-Su, who can stay at home rather than in hotels.
The board takes cost into consideration along with a menu of other variables, including internet access, adequate facility space, community relationship with the board and travel time for the board members and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, among other factors.
However, because many Fish and Game commercial fisheries staff members live on the central Kenai Peninsula and the local governments offered meeting space for free, the cost differentials between the three locations were surprisingly similar, said Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight.
Board chairman Reed Morisky said he saw logistical issues with the area, including how spread out the area near the likely meeting space would be. Anchorage has more hotel rooms, restaurants and amenities within walking distance than Kenai/Soldotna does, he said.
Johnson argued in favor of holding the meeting in Kenai/Soldotna, saying the board members get a valuable insight from being present in a community they may not when they don’t meet there, given that not all stakeholders have the money to travel to Anchorage for multiple days at a time.
“I think over the years the board has been good at acknowledging that it’s important that we travel to the places that these industries are centered,” he said. “I think that by abandoning that notion, we may lose that connection with the stakeholders for whom this industry is their very backyard. And that would be a shame.”
Morisky said sportfishermen and subsistence users are stakeholders in the Upper Cook Inlet fishery, too, many of whom live in the Anchorage area. One of the main contentions commenters asking the board to meet on the Kenai Peninsula have asserted is that the majority of people who attend the meetings, even in Anchorage, are from the Kenai Peninsula, and that Anchorage residents don’t attend as much even when the meetings are nearby.
Morisky noted that even if people are not actively involved in the deliberations, they may still be following the decisions.
“Just because people aren’t necessarily at meetings or don’t own a particular permit, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a common ownership in our resource,” he said.
After the vote, ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in response to Johnson’s comments that he was aware the board needed to stay connected to the fishing communities.
“It’s a careful balancing act between cost and maintaining our (citizen advisory committee) system and maintaining the board structure,” he said. “To me, the clear mechanism that I want to do is make sure we continue a strong AC structure and we can bring those people into our meetings to engage no matter where they are. But I would hate to jeopardize that cost, in terms of our meeting locations.”
At the same March 2018 meeting where the members voted to move the meeting to the Kenai Peninsula, the board accepted the policy that recommended rotation of the meetings between the three major communities.
Former board member Al Cain, who proposed the idea, said it was meant to take the politics out of choosing the meeting location every three years. At the time, it passed narrowly. Board member Jensen said at the work session Oct. 24 that he didn’t think the rotational policy was fair and supported repealing it.
“I don’t think it’s our purview to hold the future boards’ feet to the fire as far as meetings go,” Jensen said. “I’m not really supportive of this policy; I don’t even think we can do it. I don’t think it’s within our authority to tell a board 10 years from now where they’re going to have their meeting.”
Board member Payton agreed, noting that he had been the one absent when the policy passed. The policy didn’t tie the board members’ hands — it was only a recommendation — but the public might not see it that way in the future, he said.
“It’s what the board decided at the time that was just for all stakeholders, and I think the board should continue to have that flexibility and wisdom to decide what’s just for everyone and decide where we want to hold our meeting,” he said.
Johnson reminded the board they had passed this a year ago to avoid some of the conflict and politics from the decision, and member Wood suggested approaching the local governments in the various communities to see if they had suggestions for how to alternate the location for the meeting.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to discontinue the policy.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].