The director of the sportfish division for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game made an interesting comment as the Board of Fish meeting wrapped up earlier this month.
Commenting on a proposal from which Fish and Game withdrew its support following public testimony, Charlie Swanton called it an example of the fish board’s public process working.
“The proposals and the positions that we take … are draft,” Swanton told the Clarion. “Nobody is perfect in regards to synthesizing information and understanding the potential ramifications of a regulation… In some cases, the additional, broader perspective gives you a different position.”
The fish board does indeed have a very good public process for developing regulations, at least in theory. Proposals are generated from resource users and managers. They are vetted by local and regional advisory committees. Once taken up at a board meeting, they are further dissected in work sessions before they come before the full board for discussion. Public comment is taken along the way.
But the fish board also has an idiosyncrasy in the way it operates that appears to undermine the public process. Frequently during board deliberations, the body will go “off the record,” at which point members discuss an issue with each other or those in the audience. When deliberations resume, a vote may be taken, but we’re left wondering what influence the off-the-record discussion had on the debate.
Couple that with the fact that the board meets in Anchorage to discuss Kenai Peninsula issues, and you can see why many have become skeptical of what should be one of the most transparent resource regulatory processes there is.
The board does not close its off-the-record proceedings to the public — to the contrary, members of the public who are able to attend the meeting appear to be fully participating. But when the meeting is held in Anchorage, a large portion of the public — many of whom have submitted comments or participated in the process to the extent that their means allow — is shut out of the board’s final decision.
When that happens, the board is not getting the additional, broader perspective so important to well-crafted regulation.
It is important that the board continue to engage the public when deliberating on fishery issues. But it would be better served to engage the public here on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s high time the fish board meet in the community most impacted by its decisions. Every proposal should be an example of good public process.