A surprise vote by the Alaska Board of Fisheries Friday caught the fishing community on the Kenai Peninsula off guard. Triennial meetings regarding Upper Cook Inlet fishing issues haven’t been held on the Peninsula in nearly two decades. The board recently voted to begin moving those meetings around on a rotating basis, including holding the 2020 session on the Peninsula. But after Friday’s vote, that two-week meeting will be held once again in Anchorage.
“Call it a tumultuous meeting at the Soldotna Sports Center, that was very emotional, although it wasn’t violent in any stretch of the imagination. It was boisterous.”
Kenai setnetter Ken Coleman was there the last time the state Board of Fisheries met on the Peninsula in 1999. The tumult Coleman talked about is generally regarded as the reason why Upper Cook Inlet finfish meetings continue to be held in Anchorage, despite repeated requests to move them. And last year, the board did decide to start moving them on a rotating basis between Anchorage, the Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley.
“It sure seemed to me like the policy that we passed last year really solved those things, and that passed 4-2," said board member Robert Ruffner. The 4-3 vote Friday approved moving the 2020 meeting back to Anchorage, leaving some questions about what the policy to rotate meetings means now.
“The honest answer I have is I don’t know," Ruffner siad. "I don’t know if the actions that we took just changed the first location and the policy still stands. It’s something that I think we have to talk about again at some point.”
The vote to change the meeting location was a surprise. It wasn’t on any agenda, but some who pay extra close attention to the goings on at the board of fish had a little heads up, like Kenai mayor Brian Gabriel, who’s also a commercial fisherman. He and the city managers from both Kenai and Soldotna hustled up to Anchorage Friday to find out more.
He says they were told before the board broke for lunch that there wouldn’t be a vote that day and instead, a meeting would be held later by telephone. A public notice period would have given time to submit more comments to the board regarding where the 2020 meeting should be held. But a vote was called for Friday afternoon.
“(I’m) still scratching my head about why you would do that. If you have the authority, and apparently you have the votes, why was there this big push and sort of deceitful way of doing it; it’s just a head scratcher.”
Transparency around this vote is now the major issue. Senators Peter Micciche and Gary Stevens, along with Representatives Gary Knopp, Ben Carpenter and Sarah Vance all signed on to a letter to board chair Reed Morisky that says they feel the public process was circumvented at the meeting last Friday. The letter also highlights Governor Mike Dunleavy’s call for more transparency, something Robert Ruffner fully supports in board procedures.
“I would like to think that it will be revisited again because it was a deviation from the norm and it was a deviation from the public process. If we can’t follow basic process, we’re in big trouble. I want to be absolutely supportive of the Dunleavy administration in their efforts to restore the public trust.”
Public trust is just one consideration. Another is economic. It would no doubt be a boost for local businesses to have a few hundred people spend two weeks here in the middle of winter to attend the meetings. Mayor Gabriel says he’s been lobbying since the 2014 cycle to get the meetings back to Kenai.
“And one of the comments I’ve heard is that we want to have it where the most people are affected. And I said every once in a while, you should consider (having it where) the people are affected the most. A lot of their decisions affect folks on the Peninsula.”
Statewide finfish and other supplemental issues will be taken up in March, when the board had originally planned to reevaluate meeting locations for 2020.