Concern raised with direction of regulatory board

  • By Becky Bohrer
  • Wednesday, July 2, 2014 10:24pm
  • News

JUNEAU — A former director of the agency that regulates Alaska’s liquor industry said interference by the state commerce commissioner’s office limited her ability to effectively do her job.

Shirley Cote expressed concern about the direction of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Anchorage Daily News. She recently stepped down from the post she held for over five years, a decision largely aimed at helping her daughter with her business, she wrote. But she said there were “instances of interference” by the commissioner’s office, including having a request to attend a conference put on hold until she produced a “business friendly plan” for the board.

Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell challenged that characterization, providing a chain of emails between deputy JoEllen Hanrahan and Cote from April about the travel and plan requests.

In one message, Hanrahan requested an outreach plan “focused on education and assistance to the business community rather than primarily enforcement.” In a later message, she said the perception has been that the board needs to widen its focus beyond enforcement “and engage on another level with the business community.”

Cote said what Hanrahan was asking for was not administrative only and “strategically changing the responsibilities” they had. Hanrahan said there was no intent to “minimize or eliminate” the board’s legal responsibilities. Cote later said she would work on a plan. “I, too, see this as nothing but a positive move,” Cote wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Cote said it was positive to the extent that the board had been doing training and outreach for years. “But what may not be captured in that is the passive resistance to enforcement,” she said, such as denying travel to a law enforcement gathering for networking — the cost for which Hanrahan wrote seemed expensive, at about $380 — or expecting the board’s focus to expand while not adding staff.

The board for years fell under the Department of Public Safety. In 2012, lawmakers approved putting it under the Department of Commerce. According to the sponsor statement, the change was not to “restrict or change the enforcement responsibilities of the Board or of the Department of Public Safety.”

Gov. Sean Parnell, in signing the bill, noted concerns raised during the legislative debate that the move could limit the board’s enforcement abilities. He said he wasn’t convinced moving “an independent board for administrative purposes will be detrimental to law enforcement.” But he remained open to reviewing the placement, organization and structure of the board if the “underlying information and facts turn out to be different from the reality of regulating this industry in the public interest.”

Three months later, in a letter to the commissioners of Commerce and Public Safety, Parnell said concerns had been raised with the board’s “new direction,” and that he wanted to refresh their recollection about the Legislature’s intent and his own in signing the bill.

Parnell said Wednesday that he had not read Cote’s opinion piece, but he plans to look at her concerns and take those up with Bell.

Cote wrote that she could “only assume” that Parnell was unaware that the department “is actively assisting” the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, a hospitality industry group, “in changing the direction of the board’s efforts.”

Bell called that assertion inappropriate.

Cote wrote that while the departments of health and public safety are spending millions of dollars to fight alcohol abuse through prevention, education and enforcement, the commerce department “is essentially working hard to promote it.”

The association’s president didn’t return a message seeking comment.

The debate over the board was reignited last month when a recruitment ad said the director would support the board’s mission “to ensure responsible growth in the beverage industry.”

The Anchorage Daily News reported the ad was pulled and rewritten. A special assistant to Bell, who said she wrote the notice, said she had no intention of rewriting the agency’s focus to favor business. Bell said it was corrected when she became aware.

The current job description on the board’s website says the director supports the board’s mission “to protect the public from alcoholic beverage abuse by enforcing state laws regulating alcoholic beverage commerce through licensing and enforcement.”

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