The new leadership team at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is taking shape, and it appears that the commissioner job will be interim head Cora Campbell's for the asking.
As of the morning of Dec. 8, the application deadline, only Campbell and former Board of Game chairman Ron Somerville had applied for the job. Somerville, who led the pro-sport hunting and fishing Alaska Outdoor Council during the 1980s, was rejected by the joint boards of game and fisheries following vocal protests from Alaska Natives in 1991 after Gov. Wally Hickel had suggested him for commissioner.
In 2007, the last time there was an opening for commissioner, eight people applied.
The diminished interest in the job may be the result of several issues, including Gov. Sean Parnell's vocal support for Campbell to head the department, as well as a slew of retirements that saw more than 140 years of experience depart Dec. 1 and the controversy drawn to whomever leads Fish and Game.
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 fisheries and game before she can be confirmed. The board approval process is required for the Fish and Game, and Education departments.
Campbell announced two of the top department leadership positions Dec. 1, her first day as interim commissioner replacing the retiring Denby Lloyd. Campbell tapped Division of Subsistence Director Craig Fleener as deputy commissioner and former Sport Fish Division Director Kelly Hepler as assistant commissioner.
Sue Aspelund is acting Commercial Fishing Division director and Jim Simon is the acting subsistence director. Kevin Brooks was named director of administrative services for Fish and Game, effective Dec. 6; and Ben Mulligan has replaced Jennifer Yuhas as legislative liaison. Yuhas transitioned to federal subsistence liaison team leader and assistant director for the Commercial Fishing Division.
Mulligan was legislative aide to Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su.
David Bedford will stay on as the other deputy commissioner. Hepler was a special assistant to Lloyd after serving as Sport Fish Division director from 2001 to 2006.
While Hepler has a sport fish background as division director, he said his experience as a special assistant allowed him to work on department-wide projects.
"I'm very familiar with all the major players, so I'm going to bring that to the team," said Hepler, who started as a fisheries biologist with the department in 1979. "I had a great opportunity to work with all the directors, so they are very familiar with me."
Fleener's elevation to deputy commissioner creates a Subsistence Division director opening; the department also has an opening for Commercial Fishing Division director after the retirement of John Hilsinger.
Campbell, previously fisheries policy aide to both Gov. Sarah Palin and Parnell, has a background in commercial fishing as a Petersburg native who grew up on the decks and docks.
At just 31, she stands to become the second-youngest cabinet officer in Alaska history. Former Gov. Frank Murkowski named 30-year-old Joel Gilbertson his commissioner of health and social services in 2003.
Campbell's appointment as interim chief and Parnell's aim for her to take over on a permanent basis raised questions about her experience and her ability to lead a disparate collection of divisions user groups.
Three members of the Board of Fisheries 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.
By tapping sport fish and subsistence for top lieutenant spots, retaining Bedford and bringing Brooks back from the Department of Administration, Campbell's team certainly seems to address some of the biggest questions surrounding her potential appointment.
"I think she's definitely up for the job, and I have a lot of confidence in the governor's judgment," Hepler said. "He had a chance to work with her one-on-one for the last four years. I do have a lot of confidence in her ability. In the last couple days I've been very impressed with how she's running things around here. As evidence of that, when you're building a team, you get people around you who offset your skill set."
Campbell, who directed subsistence outreach efforts before being selected to serve in the Palin administration, signaled the importance of that division with the appointment of Fleener.
Fleener has worked for the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in the capacity of director of Natural Resources, regional biologist, and chief administrative officer managing health care, education and natural resources.
Fleener has served on various boards and councils, including the Board of Game, director and chair of Gwich'in Council International, and co-chair of the Yukon River Panel as part of his Division of Subsistence director duties.
He also served more than 24 years in the military including, four years with the U.S. Marine Corps and 20 years in the Alaska National Guard. Fleener holds a degree in natural resources management from the University of Alaska.
Hepler is currently the chair of the National Fish Habitat Board, and has a degree in fish and wildlife management from Montana State University.
"Craig and Kelly have outstanding credentials," Campbell said. "I appreciate Craig's diverse professional and public service background and welcome Kelly's long service and proven leadership from within the department. They bring a good balance of experience, knowledge and education to the commissioner's office."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.
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