Head of state liquor control agency to retire Friday

Kyle Hopkins
Marc Lester

The director of the statewide agency that regulates alcohol-related businesses and enforces Alaska liquor laws says she is stepping down on Friday.

Appointed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, Shirley Cote was a career cop and former Soldotna police chief when she took command of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Gov. Sean Parnell, through a spokeswoman, on Tuesday praised her efforts to shepherd the agency's move from the Department of Public Safety to the business-oriented Commerce Department.

Cote had opposed the move. She said in an interview that the transition has not dampened alcohol investigation, but she remains convinced it was the wrong decision overall.

"The same reason that the industry doesn't want to be there (under the Public Safety Department) would be the same reasons that I think we ought to be there," Cote said. "Alcohol is a dangerous product that is a legal product, but it needs to be controlled. I think that message was probably stronger in public safety than it is in commerce."

Cote said she doesn't know if she would have left had the agency remained under the Public Safety Department umbrella.

The primary reason for her retirement, announced in a May 7 memo to Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell, was to work as a publicist for her author-illustrator daughter, Cote said. Cote had previously planned to retire in July, the memo said.

The director job is an important one in a hard-drinking state where booze is big business and dozens of communities have enacted local prohibitions. The director works with a quasi-judicial, five-member board that can give valuable liquor licenses to businesses or take them away.

Board chairman Robert Klein, who also sits on the board of directors for the state liquor lobby and is a consultant for the industry, said in an interview he is thinking about applying for the job.

"I'm still testing the waters, seeing what's going on and who might be out there," Klein said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell said in an email that Klein had submitted his resume to Commissioner Bell for consideration.

The leadership change comes at a decisive time for the ABC Board, which would be charged with overseeing marijuana regulation if Alaska voters approve a ballot initiative in November. Committees overseen by the board have been reviewing state liquor laws for months, and are expected to propose several changes before the next Legislative session.

Cote said her last day is Friday.

"I'm just very excited about getting into a whole different field," Cote said. "(My daughter) just finished her new book."

In 20 years with the Anchorage Police Department, Cote was the first woman to serve in each of the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain, according to news accounts at the time. She worked as chief of the Soldotna Police Department for six years, retiring from that post in 2003. The National Center for Women and Policing gave her a "Breaking the Glass Ceiling" award that year.

As ABC Board director, Cote was paid a salary of about $127,000 in 2013, according to the Department of Administration.

"I think she's done an excellent job. She was responsible for the transition from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Commerce," Klein said. "She handled it beautifully, administratively. The way in which we didn't miss a beat in areas like enforcement, information to the board."

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow wrote in an email, "Governor Parnell appreciates Ms. Cote's decades of service to the people of Alaska."

Parnell valued her efforts to ensure a "smooth transition" between the departments, Leighow wrote.

The Legislature moved the agency in 2012. The Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailer's Association, of which Klein is a board member, claimed responsibility for the move "against all odds."

"This was a major accomplishment to get it through the Legislature," board chairman Darwin Biwer wrote in the group's 2012 annual report. "It very nearly didn't happen."

Cote had testified against the move, saying that most state alcohol-control agencies are housed within law enforcement departments and that she worried the switch could hurt communications with troopers, according to testimony records.

The impact of the change remains to be seen, Cote said.

"There's just a different focus and that's exactly what the industry wanted ... for there to be more focus on the commerce side of the industry and to raise them up. So they wouldn't feel as if they were being treated as criminals," she said.

The ABC Board employs investigators who inspect businesses that sell alcohol and conduct undercover investigations to see if bartenders and servers are selling to teens. The number of those compliance checks was on the rise before the agency moved to the Commerce Department and the growth continued after the switch, increasing from 700 in 2010 to 828 last year, according to Cote.

Until recently, Klein worked as sales and marketing director for Brown Jug liquor stores. He said he has not decided whether he will pursue the job and plans to chair the ABC Board's next regular meeting in July.

Enforcement supervisor Robert Beasley will serve as interim ABC Board director while the governor searches for a replacement for Cote, Klein said.


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