Knowles chief of staff leaving state government

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles will finish his last year in office without his top aide.

Chief of Staff Jim Ayers announced Tuesday he will resign effective Jan. 4 to work for a newly created environmental group that focuses on oceanic issues.

The departure will leave Knowles without his acerbic, tough negotiator as the Democrat governor submits his final budget to a contentious Republican-controlled Legislature.

Knowles praised Ayers as a ''good friend and an effective coach'' within the administration. Ayers was appointed chief of staff in 1994.

''For seven years, the longest tenure of any chief of staff that I'm aware of, Jim Ayers has been at the forefront of every major issue that we have tackled,'' Knowles said.

Ayers said he is proud of the work the administration has accomplished, citing the creation of Denali KidCare and Smart Start and environmental and safety improvements within the oil industry.

''It's been a battle and seven years is a long time,'' Ayers said. ''I don't feel like I'm leaving anything undone.''

But two major issues that remain unresolved is the state's subsistence dilemma and closing the fiscal gap.

Because of a conflict between the state constitution and federal law, federal managers took over subsistence management in two-thirds of the state's land and its waters.

Knowles has made regaining state control his top priority but failed to win the Legislature's support of a constitutional amendment to comply with federal law in 1999.

In November, a Knowles' panel drafted a constitutional amendment that the governor is expected to again put before the Legislature when it returns later next month.

Ayers said the subsistence fight has been a source of frustration, but added ''we've build the house for subsistence.''

''If I thought staying here one more month, or one more year would change their minds, I would do it,'' he said.

Ayers will remain in Juneau as the North Pacific regional director for Oceana, a non-profit ocean conservation group based in Washington, D.C. He will oversee the group's interests in Alaska, Washington state and Oregon, the group said.

The former Knowles aide was picked for the job because of his experience with environmental issues facing oceans such as destructive fishing practices and pollution, said Oceana president Steve Roady.

''Alaska plays a vital role in ocean conservation ... We are delighted and honored to have Jim join us as our first regional director,'' Roady said.

Ayers previously served as deputy commissioner for the state Department of Fish and Game and director of the Alaska Marine Highway System. He was also director of legislative relations for Gov. Bill Sheffield from 1985-86.

Republican leaders, who have controlled the Legislature during Knowles two terms as governor, generally praised Ayers for his work.

''He's an effective foe,'' said Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman. ''I like him personally. Politically, it's a different story.''

Knowles plans to name a successor before Ayers leaves, said press secretary Bob King. Deputy Chief of Staff David Ramseur and Budget Director Annalee McConnell are two possible candidates, King said.

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