Travel waivers granted to fish board chair

Last February, before the 2011 Upper Cook Inlet meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Anchorage, member Karl Johnstone requested and was granted a waiver of state rules prohibiting the payment of travel expenses within the community of residence.

Johnstone, who has a home off Potter Valley Road in Anchorage, asked then-board Executive Director Jim Marcotte to request the waiver because it was not “practical” for him to drive back and forth to his home during the two-week meeting.

The waiver was granted by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Financial Officer Christine O’Sullivan, which is only allowed under the Alaska Administrative Manual when it serves the “best interests of the state.”

Johnstone’s home in Anchorage is unoccupied from October until at least May, as he and his wife winter at their home in Prescott, Ariz., according to Johnstone.

Johnstone was granted a similar waiver for another meeting in Anchorage March 22 to March 26, 2011, and again for the annual work session and the Pacific cod meeting held in Anchorage from Oct. 4 to Oct. 10, 2011.

The total expense for three of the four Anchorage meetings in 2011 is not yet known as the Journal awaits a response to a public records request for board meeting expenses, but the October 2011 meeting cost the state $1,440 for parking, per diem and hotel. Johnstone received $540 in per diem allowance for the October meeting and his hotel bill was $792.

He has also been pre-approved for another waiver at an upcoming meeting in Anchorage this March 20 to March 23.

The waiver granted to Johnstone for the Anchorage meeting later this month was again based on a rationale of practicality. Johnstone’s home currently has about four feet of snow in his driveway.

Anchorage is approaching a record amount of snowfall this winter, but there was no snow in the first week of October 2011, when the prior waiver was granted for Johnstone to stay in a downtown hotel. Johnstone’s home off Potter Valley Road in Anchorage is less than 13 miles from downtown where board meetings take place.

At the October meeting in Anchorage, Johnstone, a former Alaska Superior Court Judge, was elected chairman of the board. According to his 2010 financial disclosure filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Johnstone earns a judicial pension of more than $100,000 per year.

According to the Alaska Administrative Manual, waivers to the prohibition on travel expenses in communities of residence may be granted if it is “in the best interests of the state.”

It goes on to say a waiver may be granted if, “for example, it might be authorized if the travel home would present a hardship due to the age or health of the board member.”

ADFG Director of Administrative Services Kevin Brooks said Commissioner Cora Campbell was unaware of either Johnstone’s request for waivers or the subsequent approvals.

“The (Alaska Administrative Manual) delegates authority to the commissioner or designee to authorize reimbursement when a meeting takes place within the vicinity (within 50 miles) of the member’s residence, when in the best interest of the state,” Brooks wrote. “Approval was granted to Mr. Johnstone because meeting days require long hours and work sessions in the evenings, and informal meetings with the public and other board members before and after formal, on-the-record sessions. Preparation for meetings also requires review of hundreds of pages of reading material.”

Johnstone also receives residential and senior property tax exemptions from the Anchorage municipality. The exemptions require the home be occupied for at least 185 days per year. Although both Johnstone and his wife Valerie Van Brocklin are listed as owners of the home, Johnstone said only he is required to be eligible for either the residential or senior exemptions to receive the benefit.

Johnstone said he automatically receives the residential exemptions because he also receives the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend.

“In Anchorage the law provides that if you are qualified for the permanent fund dividend that provided you meet the age requirement you are entitled to the tax exemption,” Johnstone wrote in an email to the Journal. “I have been eligible for and received the permanent fund dividend and thus have been eligible for the exemption. And while my spouse may have not been in the state 185 days, she is not 65, and thus she could not apply for the benefit. The law does not require that we both be 65 or that we both be qualified for the dividend in order for me to receive the benefit.”

Johnstone also noted that he pays for his airfare from Arizona to Alaska for board meetings.

“I provide transportation to and from all board meetings at my own expense when I travel from anywhere outside of Anchorage,” Johnstone wrote. “The state would pay for travel from Anchorage to board meetings, but rather than go to Anchorage first and then fly to say Petersburg or Ketchikan, I fly directly to those locations at my own expense.”

Johnstone was appointed by former Gov. Sarah Palin in December 2008 to finish out the term of Jeremiah Campbell, and was subsequently nominated by Palin for a full term that began July 1, 2009.

His current term expires June 30 and he must be nominated by Gov. Sean Parnell before the end of the current legislative session for confirmation and a second term.

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