With less than two weeks before his swearing-in as Alaska's newest governor, independent Bill Walker's effort to take the helm from Gov. Sean Parnell is beginning to take shape, including the news that his chief of staff will be former Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor Jim Whitaker.
Key to Walker's upcoming transition effort is the expected gathering in Anchorage this weekend of some 250 Alaskans from around the state. The group, including experts and stakeholders from various policy areas, will help shape goals for the administration on 17 subcommittees discussing oil and gas, fisheries, economic development, natural resources, administration and other topics.
The so-called "transition team's" previously announced co-chairs are Ana Hoffman, who co-chairs the Alaska Federation of Natives and Rick Halford, a former Republican legislative leader and prominent opponent of the Pebble mining prospect near Bristol Bay.
The unique nature of Walker's unity ticket, which combined longtime Republican Walker with Democrat Byron Mallott on a nonparty ticket, suggests the transition effort might be more likely to cross political boundaries than previous executive shifts.
"We've been very careful to make sure all voices and perspectives are heard and as a whole that the group is representative of different areas of the state," said Lindsay Hobson, spokeswoman for Walker. "It is very much a bipartisan effort."
The meetings are expected to run from Friday through Sunday at the University of Alaska Anchorage. More details about the meetings are expected to be released on Wednesday.
The focus of the weekend event will include highlighting key issues the new administration will face. Most of the discussion will likely take place through the lens of the state's massive fiscal deficit and necessary budget cuts needed to close a $2 billion-plus hole that's swelling thanks to plunging oil prices.
Following his Dec. 1 swearing in, Walker faces another critical deadline on Dec. 15 when he must submit the next fiscal year's budget to the Legislature.
News media and public can attend the discussions at UAA, Hobson said.
"The public will be allowed to observe but only as space allows," said Hobson. "In an effort to prevent disruption, public observers will be requested to refrain from commenting when the transition team is in session."
It's uncertain if two past transition discussions, under governor-elect Frank Murkowski in 2002 and governor-elect Sarah Palin in 2006, were open to media.
Jim Clark, who led the transition effort for Murkowski and became his chief of staff, said that as he recalled, neither was open to media. That was done to promote a free exchange of ideas, he said.
Clark said he had a lot of faith in this transition effort, given that smart people seasoned in transitions are helping, including Bruce Botelho, a former Juneau mayor who was attorney general under Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
Mike Nizich, chief of staff to Parnell and a veteran of past transitions, is also helping with the effort under the Parnell administration, said Clark.
"There are very experienced people on both sides of this, which means to me it will be well organized and to my way of thinking it will be very valuable to the state," Clark said. "Certainly the Walker-Mallott team has ideas of what it wants to do, but transition teams offer what I call a peer review of those ideas, which can add or subtract or provide entirely new ideas, or prioritize issues a governor-elect is already looking at."
Ideas that may be discussed this weekend include some of the positions Walker took during the campaign. He has said the first thing he would do is expand Medicaid. He said he would stop funding for the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline, wants to increase the state's equity position in the Alaska LNG project and expedite it, and would ask department heads to trim budgets by 5 percent in an effort to balance the budget.
Botelho on Tuesday confirmed Jim Whitaker will be Walker's chief of staff. Botelho let that news slip on Monday to a reporter, after mistakenly thinking Walker's staff had already released that information.
The outspoken Whitaker is a former Republican state representative and former Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor who endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 when he ran for president against the McCain-Palin ticket.
Whitaker has worked with Walker as a board member of the Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which has sought to develop a mega-project to deliver liquefied natural gas from the North Slope to Asia.
As for Botelho, he would not comment when asked if Walker had selected people for his cabinet.
Botelho said he and others on Tuesday were focused on finalizing the committee leaders and members who will participate in the discussions this weekend.
A key objective in past transitions has been delving into the specific tasks state agencies are engaged in, said Clark and Mike Tibbles, who led the transition effort to the Palin administration and was her chief of staff for two years.
Past transition efforts have also led to reports that describe the policy goals and issues incoming governors will face.
Botelho said the Walker transition team has requested reports from the Parnell administration regarding each department. Information sought includes such things as mission statements, organizational charts, statutory responsibilities and critical issues departments face that could confront the new administration in the next 30, 60, and 90 days.
The transition team and related efforts can highlight important issues the incoming administration will face, he said.
"In many respects it's an early warning system for the administration in terms of identifying challenges and issues and hopefully also opportunities in these different areas, and all of this against a backdrop of a challenging fiscal situation for the state," Botelho said.
"It will help us prioritize the use of very limited time that key administration figures will have," he said.
Walker is requesting $150,000 for food, travel, lodging, and rental space for the transition team, said Hobson. The money will come from the Parnell administration contingency fund.
Hobson said to her knowledge that was about half what Murkowski spent, but about double what Palin spent.
Lobbyists aren't part of the transition team. Botelho said that approach is not meant to "cast aspersions" on lobbyists. But he said the team would rather hear directly from experts or stakeholders, not people who deliver messages for them.
Walker said during his campaign that he was open to retaining officials from the Parnell administration, though he publicly named no one.
State and federal employees won't be part of the transition team, but municipal officials will be, Botelho said.
Botelho said state employees could be put in a "potential situation of conflicting loyalty or obligation." It also might give them "some exalted or special status in the eyes of peers or superiors that that person is protected or has special access."
"That is unfair to employees and their co-workers and supervisors," Botelho said. "It's a judgment call we made that we think is the right one."