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In surprise reversal, Alaska Board of Fisheries moves Upper Cook Inlet meeting back to Anchorage

The Kenai Peninsula fishermen who want to speak to the Board of Fisheries at the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting will have to pack their bags after all.

In a surprise deliberation and vote, the Board of Fisheries voted 4-3 to relocate the Upper Cook Inlet 2020 regulatory meeting from the Kenai-Soldotna area to Anchorage. The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in Anchorage, but the board reconsidered the decision in March 2018 and voted 4-2 to hold the meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula.

The reversal vote took place Friday during the board’s Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim finfish meeting.

Board chair Reed Morisky said there was interest in revisiting the decision in part because the board had voted on it several times in the past two years. Board member Israel Payton said there had been “political pressure” from former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration.

Morisky reiterated points the board has discussed before about why to have the Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage, including that Anchorage is central, is home to many fishery participants and has many hotels and meeting spaces.

Board of Fisheries members John Jensen, Robert Ruffner and Reed Morisky at the board's annual work session Oct. 16, 2018. (Elwood Brehmer / Alaska Journal of Commerce)

Board members John Jensen and Payton agreed that Anchorage was a neutral location, and were joined by Morisky and Orville Huntington in approving the move; members Robert Ruffner, Al Cain and Fritz Johnson voted against it.

“The reason I vote to have the meeting there is it is a centrally located area,” Jensen said. “It’s halfway between Soldotna and the Wasilla area up above. You have to remember there’s a lot of people who live in the Anchorage area, both sport and commercial.”

Ruffner, who lives in Soldotna, contested the process through which the board was reconsidering the location. No formal notice was issued, nor was the discussion brought up during the board’s “miscellaneous business” agenda, typically addressed at the end of a meeting.

No formal notice was given in the meeting documents, and because the meeting was dealing with Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim fishing issues, Upper Cook Inlet stakeholders would have been unlikely to attend.

“To me, it’s patently unfair,” Ruffner said. “My community has been asking this meeting for over a decade. People have gone from diapers to college and not been able to weigh in in their community. I apologize to you in the audience who have to listen to this because it’s garbage.”

Morisky said he did offer notice that the discussion would take place, and that the board does note in its tentative agenda that items are subject to change. On Tuesday, Jan. 15, as the board was beginning its discussions for the meeting, he stated briefly that the board would be discussing the Upper Cook Inlet meeting location later in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting.

“Regarding reasonable notice, this decision to take this up again was discussed early on in the meeting that this would be talking about this later,” he said. “This is later.”

Seth Beausang, the legal counsel for the board, said the process most likely had not violated the Open Meeting Act, as the meeting location decision was a nonregulatory decision and could fall into the miscellaneous business agenda.

Jensen said he had asked for the discussion to be held Friday because he had to be absent for the last day of the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting on Saturday and wanted to weigh in on the Upper Cook Inlet meeting location.

Huntington said that while he sympathized with the Kenai Peninsula fishermen, he would support having the meeting in Anchorage in part because of his health.

Johnson contested the argument that the meeting should be held in Anchorage because of the number of stakeholders that live in the region.

“If we were to make these decisions based on sheer numbers (of permit holders), we might as well hold the Bristol Bay meeting in Seattle,” he said. “Just because of what the board would gain by being in those communities … I don’t think we get a proper sense of what’s going on in those communities without being there.”

During the March 2018 discussion, Cain proposed a rotating schedule that would move the meeting between Anchorage, Kenai-Soldotna and Palmer-Wasilla on a nine-year rotation. At regional meetings, he said he’s seen more young people attend and hopefully absorb some of the board process.

The location of the Upper Cook Inlet regulatory meeting is always contentious. During the regulatory meetings, stakeholders are invited to comment on proposals and to participate in committees offering advice.

There are also last-minute amendments and changes to proposals that can drastically alter fisheries. However, the agenda is frequently subject to change and no firm deadlines are given, so fishermen who have to travel out of their community frequently have to do so for days at a time, incurring hotel, food and travel expenses. The Upper Cook Inlet board meetings commonly last at least 14 days.

Central Kenai Peninsula stakeholders have been asking for a meeting in their community for two decades. In 2018, most of the local governments of the central peninsula as well as community organizations jointly submitted documents requesting a meeting in the community with an offer of free venue space, free IT services and free ground transportation in an effort to reduce cost as a consideration.

Upon hearing that the board planned to reconsider its meeting location, officials from Kenai and Soldotna traveled to the meeting on Friday. When they arrived, they spoke to a number of board members who told them that the vote would not happen Friday, said Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel.

He and his wife then turned around at noon and drove three hours back to Kenai. The board took the issue up immediately after its recess for lunch, around 1:45 p.m. Friday.

“This to me isn’t about a particular user group getting a leg up — it’s about bridging the geographic divide,” Gabriel said. “This was flat-out wrong, the way this went down (Friday). The way it was handled was disrespectful. It doesn’t do much for bridging the geographic divide in this state.”

The city managers of Kenai and Soldotna submitted record copy comments saying they had been planning for months to host the board on the peninsula and were committed to providing venue and IT services to the board at no cost, in part to prove the communities could host the event well and encourage the board to return on a rotation.

Morisky said in the meeting that he took responsibility for the misunderstanding — he had told the city representatives from Kenai and Soldotna that it wouldn’t be taken up Friday, but then the schedule had changed.

The Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, an industry coalition representing Cook Inlet east side set gillnet fishermen, called the move disenfranchising.

“KPFA’s position is that Morisky knows it’s easier to disenfranchise people when he doesn’t have to look them in the eye,” the group said in a statement.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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