State ombudsman says Board of Fisheries violated open meetings law

Alaska Board of Fisheries members meet in Anchorage for a work session earlier this year. (Photo by Aaron Bolton, KBBI – Homer)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries violated the state’s open meetings law. That’s according to Alaska’s ombudsman that released a critical report on September 3,  saying the board improperly shifted the location of its Cook Inlet finfish meeting earlier this year with little public notice — the location issue is expected to be revisited again next month.

When the Board of Fish move its Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting from Kenai to Anchorage – it took a lot of people by surprise. Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel was one of them.  Gabriel is also longtime commercial fisherman.

“It wasn’t on the agenda,” he said. “We just happened to get a heads up that they were going to consider that later in the meeting.”

This is a big deal because for nearly two decades, these finfish meetings — which set fishing regulations for commercial, sports and subsistence fishing in Upper Cook Inlet —  have been held in Anchorage.  The issue has long been a point of contention for Cook Inlet fishermen who say that the cost of travelling to Anchorage for the meetings is exorbitant.

Gabriel said fishermen from outside of Anchorage have been asking for the meetings to be moved for years.

“These meetings last for two weeks,” he said.”  “That’s a commitment for folks to go up there and participate.”

Last year, the board decided to rotate the location of the meeting between Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su.

Gabriel said  he thought the fight was finished after the board voted last year to hold its 2020 meeting on the Kenai Peninsula. But then word came that the board was poised to reconsider at its January meeting in Anchorage. Gabriel and other area officials drove up to speak to board members. But then the message changed again. 

“We were told that they were not going to have the vote that day. Apparently they had some second thoughts about the public notice part of it. So we turned around and came home,” he said.

After they left the board did vote after all. By a single vote it changed the location of the 2020 meeting back to Anchorage. Board of Fish Chair Reed Morisky did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday. But in meeting tape from January, he admitted there had been some confusion in the room.

“So, I take full responsibility for that, there was no intent to mislead,” Morisky said.

State investigators couldn’t account for the last-minute change, either.

“He was not able to tell the investigator what the circumstances were that changed,” said Alaska State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.

She said she looked into the whole affair following a complaint to her office.

“It really did not follow the spirit of the law, which is that public entities do the public’s work in public,” she said.

The ombudsman advised the board to hold a fresh vote at its October meeting.

Board of Fish Chair Reed Morisky wrote a letter to the ombudsman pledging the rotating meeting location policy will be revisited next month.

But Gabriel  said he doesn’t have a lot of faith the board will change course.

Still, he said he’s grateful the ombudsman stepped in.

 

 

 

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