This past week, the Alaska Public Offices Commission held a hearing to address, among other things, an appeal of a decision involving an Alaska Department of Fish and Game official.
The initial complaint claimed that Kelly Hepler should have filed a public disclosure for gifts he received from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association for his participation in the Kenai River Classic.
APOC had dismissed the complaint based on Hepler’s assertion that in his position with Fish and Game, he is not required to file disclosures.
While that argument is straightforward, here’s where things get a little fishy. The state maintains a list of positions for which public disclosures are required, and what Hepler says is his official title — Special Projects Coordinator — is not on that list.
But the appeal is based on the fact that in various Fish and Game documents, including press releases and biographical information on the department’s website, Hepler is listed as a former Special Assistant to the Commissioner, a position which would have required public disclosure.
In 2010 he was appointed as an “Assistant Commissioner,” a position that is not listed as requiring public disclosure. Helper argues that his “Assistant Commissioner” title is a “working title” and not his official title.
From a legal perspective, the argument that Hepler was not required to file public disclosures appears correct.
But that conclusion can only be read as a loss for the public’s right to know. Regardless of official title — or working title, for that matter — an official in a position of authority and influence in a government agency has an ethical obligation to disclose to the public anything of value received from organizations or individuals seeking to influence that agency.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association more than meets that definition. In fact, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels already amended their financial disclosures to APOC, in response to complaints filed at the same time as those against Hepler, that they failed to disclose gifts they received from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
And according to Fish and Game’s heirarchy, Hepler’s “working title” as “assistant commissioner” is one that reports directly to the commissioner. It is clear that his position with the department is one that carries enough weight to merit a higher level of public scrutiny.
Fish and Game’s decision-making processes has become increasingly opaque. Too often, documentation of how decisions have been reached is withheld from public view. In fact, a public records request made by the Clarion ahead of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting looking for details to explain how the department arrived at its position on certain proposals, was denied with the claim that the requested emails were “draft” material, and as such did not have to be released to the public.
In other words, the process by which Fish and Game is making important policy decisions — and just who within the department making those decisions — is, in the department’s opinion, none of the public’s business.
And if you have a title that’s not on the list of positions required to file public disclosures, we have to ask, just who are you accountable to?
A change in culture with regard to public disclosure is long past due. Agency officials need to remember they are accountable to the public for the decisions they make. The public has a right to know how those decisions are being made — and who is influencing them. Quite frankly, if there’s something a public official is reluctant to disclose to the public, especially when it involves gifts from prominent lobbying and advocacy organizations, they probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.