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Turmoil at state transportation department over who has muscle

Pat Forgey
Loren Holmes photo

A clash over state ferries has opened a window into recent turmoil at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and attempts by Gov. Sean Parnell to assert authority over another independent advisory board.

Transportation Commissioner Marc Lukien was replaced by new Commissioner Pat Kemp last year. Last week, Kemp suggested to the House and Senate Transportation committees that there had been mismanagement in the department without offering details. “I don't wish to go into the real substantive matters of how the department was operating,” Kemp said. “I think it is fixed now.”

One of the problems may have involved the Alaska Marine Highway System's plan for a new state ferry. Another may have been the move by new Commissioner Kemp -- who was concerned about the projected cost for a new ferry climbing from an expected $120 million to $170 million -- to replace Deputy Commissioner for Marine Operations Mike Neussl.

To confer or not?

Kemp also angered some legislators by not consulting with the Marine Transportation Advisory Board when he appointed Reuben Yost as new deputy commissioner -- and when he cancelled the long-planned ferry.

The marine transportation board was created by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Sarah Palin in 2009, giving coastal residents a voice in ferry issues. Under state law, the commissioner is required to confer with the board before appointing a director or deputy commissioner of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

House Transportation Committee Chair Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said that wasn't done when Yost was appointed. “That statute was put in place by us legislators so the public would have input on the ferry system,” Wilson said.

Kemp told legislators that that he knew about the statute, but that it didn't apply because he reorganized the department so that Yost is just one of three deputy commissioners. Yost will also oversee the Division of Weights and Measures.

Change in duties

None of the three deputies is solely responsible for the Alaska Marine Highway System, he said. “One will know a little bit more than the other two,” about ferries, Kemp said. The changed title and duties means the law no longer applies to deputy commissioners, Kemp said.

“There will be a deputy who has as part of his/her responsibility oversight and coordination, but there will be no Deputy Commissioner of Marine Operations,” Kemp wrote in a letter to the marine transportation board, explaining why it wasn't consulted.

A legislative attorney said consultation is required, even if the formal title is changed, but Kemp said the Alaska Attorney General's office advised him it was not.

“I know you are concerned that I'm ignoring the statute,” he said. “I did consult with our attorneys and felt that I was on good ground and wanted to make that selection.”

Kemp also authored the dramatic change in plans for a new state ferry without consultation, going from the larger ship to a smaller vessel. The decision was made by the administration, and was even kept from the board at its recent meeting, Kemp said.

While there was no public involvement in the decision, “the governor was fully engaged in it,” Kemp said.

An unhappy Wilson told Kemp that the ferry system in recent years has worked closely with marine board, and has benefitted from community involvement.

“We used to have a lot of input from our coastal communities,” Senate Transportation Committee Chair Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said. Kemp promised that would continue.

Three years ago, the Parnell administration ousted Larry LeDoux as Commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development and named Anchorage elementary school principal Mike Hanley as commissioner.

Under state law, LeDoux didn't work for Parnell but for the state Board of Education. The education commissioner is the only commissioner that doesn't require legislative confirmation, but is instead approved by the governor.

In the case of Hanley, he was both selected by Parnell and then approved by Parnell after the Board of Education named him commissioner at Parnell's request.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com