Editorial: Navigating fish board nominations

  • By Peninsula Clarion Editorial
  • Sunday, April 1, 2018 7:26pm
  • Opinion

When the Legislature returns to work Monday after a break for Easter weekend, the first hearing on the docket will be for the Senate Resources Committee, which will consider Gov. Bill Walker’s nominees for the Board of Fisheries.

We wish the committee would have the opportunity to consider not just the nominees, but just how those nominations come to be.

In Monday’s hearing, senators will be asking questions of Orville Huntington and Al Cain, both current members of the board who were reappointed by Walker. However, up until this past Wednesday, one of the names in front of lawmakers for consideration was Duncan Fields, instead of Cain.

The change occurred — at least publicly — late Wednesday afternoon, when the governor’s office issued a press release that Fields was withdrawing from consideration, and Cain had opted out of his retirement from the board to serve another term. This followed vocal criticism from a coalition of sport fishing interest groups, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, over Fields’ connection to the commercial fishing industry. In fact, earlier Wednesday, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association had issued a call to action, urging people to contact lawmakers to oppose the governor’s pick.

So, what should Alaska residents take away from the past week’s events?

First, while he’s hardly the first governor to have a nominee shot down by special interests, we’d have thought that by his fourth regular session with the Legislature, Walker would’ve better figured out how to navigate fish board politics. Indeed, Walker has struggled with fish board appointments throughout his term, and we’re guessing that after the uproar over Fields’ nomination, someone in the administration did the math on lawmakers’ votes and decided to go in a different direction.

Second, while we’ve long known the clout certain organizations, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, have when it comes to the Legislature, if the governor thought Fields was truly the best person for the job, we’d have preferred that he had a confirmation hearing so that influence could be seen out in the open.

As we’ve noted before, the main arguments used to sink nominees, including Fields, have been that seats on the board should represent specific user groups, and that seats on the board should represent certain geographical locations. We’ve heard lawmakers repeat those arguments — despite the fact that they are specifically contradicted in Alaska statute.

Alaskans should be concerned with those arguments for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that an appointee to a government body that makes regulations for all user groups is perceived to be beholden to one of those groups — and not to conservation of the resource, unless it comes at another user group’s expense.

Alaskans should also be concerned about the concept of geographical representation. We’d like to note that should Fields have joined the board, the seat in question would’ve remained in the Southcentral Alaska region — Cain is from Anchorage while Fields is from Kodiak. If you talk to people from other parts of the state, they tend to think of Southcentral Alaska as one big neighborhood, much the way people here tend to think of Southeast or the Interior. By that line of reasoning, Southcentral currently has three representatives on the board, with members from Wasilla, Anchorage and Soldotna. Geographical representation certainly is relative.

Walker has pitched the idea of expanding the board, but adding more members doesn’t change the issue if a perception of assigned seats continues.

Fields’ withdrawal and Cain’s reappointment likely saves the Legislature a sticky confirmation hearing when lawmakers have many other pressing issues on the agenda. But without confirmation hearings and a vote by lawmakers, Alaskans should be aware that it is not our elected officials who are calling the shots.

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