Our view: Sole-source contract

It may well be a good idea for the Legislature to spend $20,000 on a long-overdue report from its Joint Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force -- but Chair Craig Johnson went about it wrong. The South Anchorage state representative pushed a sole-source contract that would give the job to his former campaign consultant, Mark Higgins, a person who also just happens to be married to a woman on Rep. Johnson's committee staff.

Even if Mr. Higgins is fully qualified to write a report about "complex" fish issues -- as Rep. Johnson asserts -- this arrangement looks, well, fishy. The public is left wondering if Higgins got the nod for the sole-source job because of connections rather than merit.

And it's a good question.

Higgins is not exactly an expert on the subject of fisheries. He's a lobbyist and campaign consultant who has worked on fishing issues. Rep. Johnson's letter seeking approval of the sole-source contract didn't even bother to mention any of those fishing issues, let alone describe what work Higgins had done on them.

Rep. Johnson says he checked in advance with the Legislature's ethics staff to see if there was a nepotism problem and was told no. (This suggests, once again, that the main function of ethics rules is to give public officials cover when they do something ethically dubious that doesn't literally violate the letter of the applicable code.)

Rep. Johnson's request to hire Mr. Higgins did not mention their past campaign connections, or the relationship to Johnson's staff member, or the ethics staff advice on the matter. Perhaps Rep. Johnson thought that information would raise eyebrows and complicate approval of the sole-source contract.

If so, he was right. The Legislative Council found out anyway and kicked the matter upstairs to presiding officers of the House and Senate.

The Legislature, in creating the task force, asked for a report that includes "options to reduce allocative conflict" between sport and commercial users. The task force hasn't produced political consensus, but it has produced reams of information from its several hearings and research. Much, if not all, is posted on a helpful legislative Web site. (Google "Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force.") It may be valuable to summarize all that information into a single printed volume that legislators could read on a plane ride home for the weekend.

But conflicts over who gets the right to catch Alaska's fish are among the most intense political battles in the state. The less-than-transparent way Rep. Johnson tried to give the job to his past campaign consultant doesn't help build public confidence in what the report will say about this long-running fight over fish.

BOTTOM LINE: This looks uncomfortably like $20,000 of sole-source back-scratching.