Alaska’s state ombudsman has upheld a complaint that the Board of Fisheries violated open meetings law by failing to properly notify the public before a January decision to shift a meeting from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage.
In a letter responding to a draft version of the report, Fish Board chairman Reed Morisky wrote that the board will re-vote on the meeting location in October and will review its policy regarding the location of meetings regarding finfish in upper Cook Inlet.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries is the referee for the state’s fisheries, dividing the catch among different types of fishermen.
Following January’s decision to move the meeting to Anchorage, all of the Kenai Peninsula’s legislators sent the Fish Board a letter asking it to reconsider. Other members of the public, particularly those from the Kenai, did the same.
“There are those who believe that if the meeting is located on the Kenai Peninsula, perhaps a different outcome might occur for different proposals,” Morisky said by phone.
He said the impending re-vote isn’t a response to the ombudsman’s report. “There were several folks who thought it would be a good idea to re-vote independent of the ombudsman’s report,” he said.
He added that with new Board of Fish members having been appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, “it’s unknown how the vote will turn out.”
The ombudsman investigation, dated Aug. 29, came about after a confidential complaint in May, Ombudsman Kate Burkhart said by phone. While the office — which investigates complaints from the public about state agencies — normally tries to resolve complaints within one year, “we prioritized getting this one completed a little quicker than normally because of the facts at issue,” she said.
In January, the Board of Fisheries unexpectedly voted 4-3 to change the location of the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Finfish Meeting from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. The meeting had been set for the Peninsula after being switched from Anchorage under a new policy that rotates meeting locations.
In January, the location of the 2020 meeting was not on the agenda of a three-day gathering called to determine issues in the Arctic, the Yukon River drainage and the Kuskokwim River drainage. Morisky said at the start of the meeting that the board would take up the matter “near the end” of the meeting.
“Then, the Board Chairperson by his own admission told representatives from the Kenai/Soldotna area that the matter wouldn’t be taken up – only to introduce the matter for a vote later the same day, after they had gone. This not only violates the spirit and the letter of the Open Meetings Act, it brings into question whether the Board Chairperson and members acted in good faith,” the ombudsman’s report states.
Burkhart said by phone that her office looked at the board’s prior actions, and “they have a really good track record of providing ample notice. That’s what made the decisions at the January meeting really stand out.”
Morisky said he had not seen the final version of the report but wants Alaskans to know the location decision was a board decision, done in public.
“There are those that believe there were behind-the-scenes nefarious occurrences, but that’s not true,” he said. “It was a meeting location decision, and it’s a board decision.”