Members of the Alaska Senate Resources Committee raised questions Monday about the efficacy and fairness of changing the voting makeup of the Kenai River Special Management Area Board as proposed in a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai.
Senate Bill 190 would take the vote away from certain state and federal agencies currently holding voting seats on the 17-member board and require that a majority of the voting members be residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
The bill also would add parcels of state-owned land totaling 500 acres to the management area.
Committee members questioned Wagoner and his legislative assistant Amy Feitz on aspects of the bill, including what environmental protections there would be once the 500 acres was added to the river management area.
But the possible future makeup of the board drew the most interest from committee members.
Currently, representatives from state and federal agencies and three municipalities fill eight of the board's 17 seats. Under Wagoner's bill, representatives from the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, as well as the Kenai Peninsula Borough -- municipalities that actually border the river -- would retain their voting powers. But members representing the Alaska departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation, and Fish and Game, along with those from the U.S. Forest Service and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge would no longer have a vote. Those agencies could continue as ex officio, nonvoting board members.
Wagoner said the the bill would help ensure local control of board decisions. He has noted reasons why the current rules can sometimes skew voting dynamics and favor control by the agencies. At-large members, he has said, may occasionally miss meetings because of other responsibilities, such as their jobs. Agency representatives, on the other hand, rarely miss meetings because their board duties are part of their jobs.
Wagoner also suggested that some at-large members might feel intimidated by the government experts on the board. There is a place for that expertise, but it should be advisory, he said.
"Control of the advisory board needs to be with the public members, not bureaucrats who may have an entirely different agenda then Joe Q. Public," Wagoner said in a recent interview.
Wagoner said he wanted the board to be a real citizens advisory group and not a bureaucratic, multiagency working group.
Ted Wellman, an Anchorage attorney and a member of the board since the mid-1990s, recently said he used to feel the same way, but over time, has changed his mind and now believes the agency representatives should retain their votes. For one thing, he said, having agency representatives helping to craft decisions and policies means their respective agencies are more likely to support the final decisions.
He also said he believed the presence of the agency representatives on the board as voting members contributes to the stability of the board and prevents the board from being controlled by special interest groups.
"I'm really interested in retaining the votes of the federal agencies," Wellman said recently. "It ensures they buy into the process of working cooperatively with the state on this park. They control land on a substantial part of it."
During the hearing, Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, said one criticism she has heard is that currently there are no representatives on the board from Homer, Seward or Anchorage. She asked if Wagoner's bill would preclude them from ever being appointed. The commissioner of the Department of Natural Re-sources currently appoints board members to two-year seats.
Wagoner said it was true that those municipalities are not represented, but neither are those cities on the river. Under his bill only those municipalities actually adjacent to the river -- Kenai, Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough -- would retain voting seats.
As for Homer, Seward and Anchorage, Wagoner said, "We didn't see any great need for them to have voting representation."
He noted that Seward and Homer would have representation through the borough.
Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, turned to a portion of the bill requiring that a majority of the voting members of the board be residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Elton said there are guides who live in Anchorage who make their living on the Kenai River. He also noted that Anchorage outfitters and others not living on the peninsula that supply people using the river would be excluded. He suggested that the majority of users of the Kenai River likely live somewhere beyond the peninsula.
"You are kind of creating a second-class user," he said, adding that the bill would disenfranchise many of the users of the river.
"We don't preclude them from serving," Wagoner responded. "We just say a majority of them will be from the Kenai Peninsula."
In this regard, Senate Bill 190 would not be much of a change. The current law also requires a majority be from the peninsula. The proposed change would make that "voting" members.
Elton also wanted to know whether the various parcels of land to be added would be open to oil and gas leasing. Currently, as state-owned land purchased with Exxon Valdez Oil Spill money, they are not.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, the land would be eligible for oil and gas leasing, but not mining, such as gravel pits.
Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fair-banks, wanted assurances that if the land was added and became open to oil and gas leasing, that setbacks and other statutory and regulatory requirements would apply.
Committee chair Scott Ogan, R-Wasilla, who said he had a lot of experience with such regulatory provisions, said there are and would continue to be restrictions.
Wagoner said his intention with SB 190 was to ensure local control.
"People who live on the peninsula have a vested interest, and a lot of them for a lot longer than any other people around, and especially the cities and municipalities that have a vested interest, and the business people of Kenai and Soldot-na," Wagoner said.
"That's the life's blood of a lot of businesses. It is not the life's blood of a lot of bed-and-breakfasts in Anchorage, the Mat Valley or any other place. I don't think you'll find that a lot of guides who guide on the Kenai River live in Anchorage."
The bill was held over in committee and may be brought up again today, Ogan said.
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