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Job description rewrites highlight tension over chief alcohol regulator job

Kyle Hopkins

The last person to run the state agency that regulates the $40 million Alaska liquor industry was a career cop. When state officials last wrote a description of the duties for her job, more than 30 years ago, they called for an executive ready to review the field work of saloon inspectors and to team up with state and federal authorities in "taking action against liquor establishments."

That description changed drastically earlier this month when the state published a recruitment ad for the next director of the Alcoholic Beverage and Control Board. The June 9 posting described a different mission for the job.

The new director would be required to have a business degree, the notice said. His or her mission would be to "support the mission of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) to ensure responsible growth in the beverage industry."

Critics say the advertisement, which was quickly pulled and re-written, reveals a philosophical shift within the Department of Commerce to change the agency from a liquor law watchdog to a booster for the alcohol industry.

"This is exactly why we opposed the move to Commerce, because we feared that the department would interfere in the board's operation and shift the emphasis from enforcement to promotion," wrote Jeff Jessee, head of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, in an email.

Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell said the state is doing no such thing. The posting was corrected when she became aware of it. "We're very cognizant of the mission of the ABC Board. We're very cognizant of the importance of maintaining the public protections that the board is vested with," she said.

Leslye Langla, a special assistant to Bell, says she wrote the notice and had no intention of rewriting the agency's focus in favor of business. Langla said she has not worked for the Commerce Department for long and was simply trying to update a job description that had no minimum job requirements and had not changed since 1982.

Langla said it was an error to add the business degree requirement, but she did so because it seemed like a logical requirement when compared to other executive-level jobs she saw being advertised in Alaska.

"We were trying to make it more professional as opposed to just the enforcement side," she said.

The ad was reviewed by ABC Board interim director Bob Beasley, Langla said. A human resources official at the Department also worked on the ad, Bell said.

The notice has since been replaced with at least two versions of the recruitment ad and a related job description. The current version of the notices, as of Thursday, had removed the business degree requirement and made no mention of growing the alcohol industry. The current notices make several references to enforcement duties.

The confusion over the wording of the ads and scrutiny from Jessee -- a longtime ABC Board watchdog -- underscores tension over the primary mission of the state's alcohol control agency. Advocates for the Alaska liquor industry successfully lobbied in 2012 to move the board from the Department of Public Safety, home of the state troopers, to the economy-minded Department of Commerce.

Jessee has criticized the ABC Board as too lenient on alcohol sellers and complained about the job posting to the state. He said he plans to testify on the issue at the board's next regular meeting July 8 in Fairbanks. Alaska bar and restaurant owners have said the agency focused solely on its police role under the Department of Public Safety, treating businesses as criminals, to the exclusion of its other duties.

The state is seeking to replace retired ABC Board director Shirley Cote. A former Soldotna police chief and Anchorage police captain, Cote was appointed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. Palin had initially offered the job to former Anchorage Police Department Chief Walt Monegan, whom she was ousting as state public safety commissioner.

The director runs day to day operations of the ABC Board, which investigates liquor violation complaints and has the power to hand out and take away liquor licenses. The agency serves a five-member board appointed by the governor.

The current board chairman, former Brown Jug liquor stores sales and marketing director Bob Klein, is also a member of the state liquor lobby association and has submitted a resume to be considered for the director job, a spokeswoman for the governor said in May.

If voters approve a ballot initiative in November, the ABC Board will also be responsible for regulating the legal marijuana industry in Alaska.

 


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com