Gov. Sean Parnell confirmed Monday that his fisheries policy aide Cora Campbell is his top choice to head the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Parnell tapped Campbell, originally hired as fisheries policy aide by former Gov. Sarah Palin in 2007, as acting commissioner Nov. 18. She will take on the interim role Dec. 1 after the retirement of current commissioner Denby Lloyd.
The selection of the 31-year-old Campbell was nothing short of stunning -- both for her age and the broader vision Parnell expressed for Fish and Game.
As the news sunk in that Campbell was more than merely an interim head during the days following Parnell's announcement at the Resource Development Council annual conference in Anchorage, the newly elected governor has heard from user groups questioning whether Campbell is qualified for the position based on her lack of management experience.
"Until an entire team is named for Fish and Game, and for every department, for that matter, it would be good for critics to hold their criticism until they really know the full picture," Parnell said.
He said she "clearly has that leadership potential" to head the department.
"When the full range of her competence and expertise is known by those who deal with her on a day-to-day basis, that criticism will fall by the wayside," he said.
Unlike other cabinet positions that are forwarded directly to the Legislature, Campbell must apply for the job and be interviewed and approved by the joint boards of Fish and Game before she can be confirmed. The board approval process is required for the Fish and Game and Education departments.
She said her experience during the last 3 1/2 years in the governor's office under both Palin and Parnell has prepared her to lead Fish and Game.
"I've had experience with a number of different departments, not just Fish and Game," she said. "I have a broad view of the way state government functions and I think that helps when you're talking about taking a fresh look at a department and things that have been structurally the same for a long time."
Three members of the Board of Fish and three members of the Board of Game review applications and conduct interviews. The joint boards -- with seven members each -- then forward a list of approved candidates from which the governor may select. Any vote must have a majority of each board, or four votes.
Parnell appears to have the votes he would need on the two boards. At least four members on each board were appointed by either him or Palin. Three members of each board are up for renomination in 2011.
Parnell said he did not consult with user groups prior to Campbell's selection.
"Not formally, no," he said, "but I have worked very closely with Cora Campbell for the last year. Her office is effectively two doors down from mine in the governor's office. I've consulted with her frequently on fisheries issues. I've found her to be incredibly competent. She knows what goes on inside the department. She knows the policies I expect to be carried out through Fish and Game's constitutional mandate.
"I have full trust that Cora Campbell will be a great commissioner of Fish and Game."
The meeting of the joint boards to vote on nominees is public and will likely be conducted via teleconference sometime in mid-December or January, depending on member availability. The deliberations over qualifications, as a personnel matter, are conducted in executive session. Applications are being accepted until Dec. 8.
As of Nov. 22, no one had yet applied for the commissioner job, which requires a "qualified executive," according to the posted advertisement.
"One of the problems with this whole situation is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of talent out there that is interested in this," said Eddie Grasser, president of the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International. Grasser said two candidates his organization encouraged to apply weren't interested.
Grasser praised Campbell but questioned whether she was ready to ascend to such a high-profile, demanding position. The Department of Fish and Game has 1,677 employees and a budget of $193.6 million for fiscal year 2011.
"I think she's very bright," Grasser said. "She's very talented. In order to lead a department as diverse and controversial as Fish and Game -- you know everybody in Alaska is very passionate about fish and game -- I'm not sure how she handles that kind of controversy and the personal attacks she's going to undergo in that position. I'm not sure how many of the, especially the older biologists, are going to look at this young girl and say, 'yeah, we're following her.'"
Campbell is from Petersburg and grew up in the fishing industry. She has a degree in education from Pacific Lutheran University and is a former executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association. She has also led subsistence outreach efforts after leaving PVOA and before being hired by Palin.
Campbell has sat in Lloyd's place at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council since August, after he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Juneau Aug. 9.
In addition to Lloyd's departure, Fish and Game is also losing commercial fishing division director John Hilsinger and Unalaska area manager Forrest Bowers. The three combined have more than 75 years of experience in Alaska's fisheries. Lloyd has been at Fish and Game since 1974, five years before Campbell was born.
"We understand how bureaucracies work," Grasser said. "We're concerned that the department bureaucracy won't necessarily get behind her, which makes her job very difficult. That's nothing against Cora, that's just the nature of the beast. That's what she's going to be facing."
With so much change at the top of the department, Campbell said the transition is a challenge and an opportunity for everyone.
"I don't anticipate hard feelings within Fish and Game or other departments," she said. "I think people who are interested in having a leadership role will have an opportunity to do that. The governor talked about building a team of people. They're going to have an opportunity to be part of the leadership."
Grasser said his organization will reiterate to Parnell the qualifications it wanted to see in a commissioner expressed in a letter to the governor after the election.
"Our main concern is that whoever the commissioner choice is have credibility not just with the public, but also within the department," Grasser said. "From grunt workers all the way to leadership, the morale level in the department for the last couple years has been pretty low. A lot of people feel like it's been too politicized. But regardless of that, we're looking for someone with the leadership qualities that ties it all together -- that the public can have trust in, but also the research biologists, the people are willing to follow. Those are two of our criteria."
Parnell expressed confidence that Campbell is ready for the responsibility.
"I think Alaska is a place where people are rewarded based on merit," he said. "When the critics who are assailing her understand the full range of her expertise and ability, there will be no question she will serve Alaska well."
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