CIRCAC to review lobbying contract

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2003

The board of directors of the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council will review and reconsider a lobbying contract it signed in March with its former executive director. The contract became the center of controversy after environmental groups complained about it and other issues to the U.S. Coast Guard last week.

The council agreed Friday to put the issue on its September agenda and to have the board's executive committee review its provisions.

The contract would pay former director James Carter goodly percentages of future funding he may be able to raise by lobbying and consulting efforts, including federal funding sought through the Alaska congressional delegation.

According to critics, Carter could be in line for as much as $440,000 if certain federal funds are obtained. Opponents called it "a golden parachute" for Carter, who retired in March.

The letter, written by a coalition of environmental organizations who collectively are represented by the CIRCAC board's environmental seat, was sent last week to Admiral James Underwood, commander of the Coast Guard's 17th District based in Juneau. The Coast Guard oversees the advisory council under the terms of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which created the council, and is responsible for its periodic recertification.

In the letter, Randy Virgin, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, questioned the propriety of the Carter contract, as well as failure by a CIRCAC committee to adhere to bylaws, interference by CIRCAC with the operations of the Homer-based Cook Inlet Keeper, and what he said were refusals to represent the citizens of Cook Inlet and to weigh in on important policy issues with regard to pending resource-related legislation in Juneau.

Virgin asked the Coast Guard to investigate whether CIRCAC had "compromised its objectivity, including marginalizing the role of environmental organizations in its operational decisions."

Ronald Morris, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, who represented the Coast Guard at Friday's meeting, said the Coast Guard is likely to take the issues raised in the letter seriously and they would be reviewed.

The matter likely will be handed to Coast Guard lawyers and an investigating officer assigned to the case, Morris said. Those decisions, however, will have to await the return of Underwood. He is expected back this week. A full investigation could take some time, Morris said.

Convening in Homer for its spring quarterly meeting, the CIRCAC board took some public testimony on the issue, and members traded often testy comments over the letter, but largely declined to discuss the issues it raised in any detail, saying they would await a decision by the Coast Guard before proceeding.

Several members of the board expressed regret that the letter had been sent in the first place. More importantly, however, some said they were angry that what they considered to be internal council matters had become the subject of news stories.

They also argued there was nothing wrong with the contract signed with Carter and said the controversy had damaged his name and the image of the council; damage, some warned, that could hurt the council's future funding efforts.

Other members said the full CIRCAC board had had plenty of warning that there was dissatisfaction with the terms of the contract and how it was developed, and that those concerns had been raised quietly and internally earlier this year but resulted in no action or even formal discussion by the board.

David Raskin, a board alternate for the environmental seat, said he tried to raise those concerns internally long before the publicly released letter from Virgin to the Coast Guard.

"I never got a response," Raskin said.

James Hornaday, who represents the city of Homer on the board, moved to add discussion of the Carter contract to the agenda of the next CIRCAC board meeting in September.

"We should know by then what the position of the Coast Guard is," he said.

Hornaday, a former judge, said he always has been a strong supporter of Carter, but the issues raised in the letter concern him.

"This contract has real potential for problems for us," he said.

John French, representing aquaculture interests, said airing the issues in the media was an "inappropriate avenue" for the environmental organizations to take, but the substance of the letter was the real issue.

He called for the letter to be reviewed by the board's executive committee.

Doug Jones, the recreational representatives, called that a waste of time.

"I think we all know how we feel about it (the letter)," he said. "I don't think it should get any more attention."

French countered, saying taking it up in the executive committee would at least show CIRCAC is trying to be responsive.

He warned that the council risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the citizens it purports to represent.

"People have tuned out the RCAC," he said. "That's what I'm hearing in public."

Bob Shavelson, head of Cook Inlet Keeper and the environmental representative to the board, said the problems facing the board arising from the letter are indicative of a lengthy pattern of behavior that tends to ignore environmental positions in favor of those of industry.

"If we take the head-in-the-sand approach, these problems will only persist," he said.

Jones said the problem with the environmental groups represented by the environmental seat was their inability to accept the board's collective decisions when those decisions don't agree with their own.

Carter said last week any money he might make by fund-raising would be entirely performance-based. That is, if he raises no funds, he doesn't get paid. Carter said he has an intimate knowledge of how CIRCAC functions, what its purpose is and what its programs are. Additionally, he said, he has a long history with people who can influence those funding streams. He said he had "a few chits" he might call in for the benefit of CIRCAC.

Critical to the issues over any payments Carter might receive as a result of his fund-raising activities is where those dollars would come from.

According to Virgin, if a five-year federal appropriation of $1 million a year being sought from Congress comes through, Carter would be eligible, under his contract, for 12 percent of the first million and 8 percent of the subsequent four years, amounting to $440,000.

But Carter's fees can't be taken from any federal funding. Neither can such fees be taken from money paid to CIRCAC by the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

That leaves only the funding the oil companies pay each year an annually negotiated amount to cover council operational costs.

Assembly member Grace Merkes, the Kenai Peninsula Borough representative, expressed some doubts about continued funding from the borough because of the information that's come out in the media.

The borough is expected to finalize its fiscal year 2004 budget at its meeting June 3.

Paul Shadura, commercial fishing's representative, asked Executive Director Mike Munger to investigate the real chances for federal CIRCAC funding given the recent moves in Congress to make sizeable cuts in taxes, which would result in less federal revenue to spend.

Meanwhile, CIRCAC has a Washington, D.C., consultant who raises funds. Steve Silver gets $28,000 a year for his efforts, but Hornaday and Shavelson said this week they couldn't recall ever seeing a written report from Silver.

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