Kenai area residents got a chance to speak directly to their Legislative delegation Saturday at a town hall meeting with Rep. Kelly Wolf and Sen. Tom Wagoner at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Building.
Of primary concern to many who spoke was who will be appointed to head the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The possibility that either acting commissioner Kevin Duffy -- appointed in December by Gov. Frank Murkowski -- or John Hilsinger could be the new commissioner drew widespread criticism from both members of the public as well as Wolf and Wagoner.
"Quite frankly, I'm opposed to both of them," said Kenai resident Chris Garcia.
The perception that Duffy and Hilsinger would represent "business as usual" at the department was cited as the main reason for opposing the candidates, and several people expressed opinions that Murkowski had gone back on his promise to change how the department is run.
"Gov. Murkowski promised us a new direction. I don't see that happening," said commercial fisher Doug Blossom.
Residents said they were tired of both the Board of Fish and the Fish and Game's failure to listen to voices from the peninsula.
"We've heard loud and clear about the problems with the Board of Fish," said retired biologist Ken Tarbox.
Tarbox said in the past, both the board and the department have ignored the public when it comes to management of fisheries resources. He especially criticized the board's process for setting new fisheries regulations.
"What it's done is eliminate the average person from participation in this process," he said.
Wolf said he, too, was upset with the way the department has been managed. In strong language, he blasted the department's failure to provide him with a complete copy of its recent habitat study.
Wolf said he had yet to see changes enacted to ensure that past oversights don't continue to occur under the Murkowski administration.
"That's the way the department was managed under the old administration. I haven't seen much change," he said.
Wagoner echoed Wolf's sentiments, saying he doesn't believe either Duffy or Hilsinger are right for the job.
"I'm not going to vote for either one of them," Wagoner said.
In addition to the problems area residents have with fisheries management, the legislators also heard concerns about education funding. Several people testified that unless the state makes significant changes to how education is funded on the peninsula, the area will continue to see a deterioration in the quality of education peninsula students receive.
"You're looking at (cutting) close to 70 teaching positions, which is almost 10 percent of the teaching positions in the district," said Margaret Gilman, a Kenai parent and member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Education.
Gilman said she was concerned that because the state is not adequately funding education, vital programs -- including numerous extracurricular electives -- will disappear on the peninsula.
"It's digging into the heart, the very core of what a school needs to be," she said.
Wagoner said he's working in the senate to find more money for peninsula schools. However, he said he's fighting an uphill battle in Juneau.
"To be honest with you, some of my colleagues in the senate think education is getting too much money now," he said, adding he agreed with Gilman's assessment that education funding needs to be reevaluated. "You're preaching to the choir."
Following the meeting, both Wagoner and Wolf said they'll try to articulate peninsula residents' concerns to lawmakers in the both Legislature and the governor's mansion.
"I'm taking back 2 1/2 pages of notes," Wagoner said. "Our governor said he was going to make some changes, and a lot of people are concerned that he's not doing it."
Wolf said he wasn't surprised with what he heard at the meeting, especially in regard to how people view the potential that Duffy might be appointed as head of Fish and Game.
"I wanted to find out if my views were the same as the people I represent," he said. "Obviously, from what I heard today, the community is concerned. That's what I intend to take back, that people don't want (Duffy or Hilsinger)."
Wolf said the meeting also convinced him area residents want to see him fight for improved education funding. Fish and game management is a top priority, too, he said, but there's one area he believes is an even bigger concern for ensuring a healthy future for the peninsula.
"Our kids are the most important resource we have here," he said.
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