An Alaska fishing commission has worked itself out of a job. But its commissioners still make more than $130,000 a year


At an shadowy state agency in Juneau, two commissioners each earn more than $130,000 a year to manage fewer than two dozen employees — about the same amount yield a returned to the corrections, health and transportation commissioners, who supervise thousands.

The two political appointees, Ben Brown and Bruce Twomley, are being meet even though they’ve all but stopped doing the Commercial Fisheries Note Commission’s most essential work: They haven’t limited access to a fishery since 2004, and they’ve decided no more than three permit applications in each of the past five years, down from the dozens that were simultaneously processed annually.

Bruce Twomley, left, and Ben Brown are both commissioners of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

Bruce Twomley, left, and Ben Brown are both commissioners of the Commercial Fisheries Registration Commission.

A long-running project to upgrade the agency’s obsolete, 35-year-old computer process has stalled. One former employee, who lacked civil service protection, alleges he was fired after pushing for reforms and providing auditors with knowledge that he said documented the commission’s inefficiency and dysfunction.

Meanwhile, different other longtime employees have been allowed to retire and assemble state benefits while continuing part-time work for the commission in transient positions. One, Doug Rickey — who left the agency last month — implied he was doing about 20 percent of his work remotely from Las Vegas, where he red-hots part of the time.

The commission’s problems were laid out in painstaking feature in a pair of audits released in 2015 — one of which called for the commissioners to be reset to part-time status. But efforts to fix the commission have gone nowhere, with commercial fishing interests and the commissioners themselves successfully fending off legislation and an administrative prepared from Gov. Bill Walker to restructure the agency.

The commission was created in the 1970s in an test at «limited entry»: capping the number of commercial fishermen in state fisheries as a means of safe keeping.

The commission decided which fisheries to limit, then reviewed petitions from fishermen and ruled on who would get to keep fishing and who would yield access — a right that had been enshrined in the Alaska Constitution until voters approved a reduced entry amendment.

The permits issued to the remaining fisherman essentially entrusted them exclusive rights to what had been a public resource — fish in the sea. Later, with a walking papers from U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the federal government began a similar process in waters the world at large the state’s 3-mile limit.

Decades after the commission was created, regardless, frustration has been building among some of the people responsible for operating it and who think it is spending cash that could otherwise go to other commercial fishing programs. (The commission’s budget comes from permit and utensil license fees paid by commercial fishermen.)

A new bill from Walker inclination lower the commissioners’ salaries and allow unions to represent lower-level stave — offering them civil service safeguards. And the chair of the House Fisheries Council, where the legislation sits, says she wants to make deeper switches at the commission.

«There’s no leadership there — there just doesn’t non-standard like to be any accountability to anybody for anything, and yet there’s plenty of excuses as to why things aren’t go aboard b enter done,» said that committee chair, Kodiak Republican Rep. Louise Stutes, whose mollify, Stormy Stutes, is a retired commercial fisherman. «My question is: What the Abaddon have you been doing?»

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks at a press conference in Anchorage in November. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, speaks at a press conference in Anchorage in November. (Marc Lester / Alaska News item News)

Twomley, the commission’s chair who was appointed by Gov. Jay Hammond in 1982, was recapturing from an injury and unavailable for comment, said Brown, the other commissioner.

In a phone vetting, Brown, an appointee of former GOP Gov. Sean Parnell, pointed to budget savings as clue that the commission has «moved in the right direction.»

The number of positions at the commission has dipped, from about 30 when Brown arrived at the commission in 2011 to nearby 20 now, with a $3.4 million staff budget reduced to $2.8 million. The medium has also downsized its offices in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley, a move that Brown replies will save another $40,000 a year.

And he said the commissioners are did to eliminating the remaining backlog of about two dozen applications for permits to fish in small entry areas, most of which date back more than two decades. (Applicants can carry on to fish under an «interim» permit while they await a conclusion, though such permits can’t be sold or permanently transferred.)

«If we don’t have happening things like surprise administrative orders or legislative audits disturbing us, I feel like steady progress is being made,» Brown disclosed. He added that «an excellent way to make sure the pace got picked up» inclination be if Gov. Walker named someone to the vacant third commissioner position, which has been air since the Legislature rejected the appointment of former Wasilla mayor Verne Rupright in 2015.

The commissioners’ low produce, however, undercuts Brown’s argument about distractions, since their drop-off in permit resolves began before the first effort to restructure the agency, in 2014.

The commissioners — both of whom are attorneys, in spite of that’s not a requirement for the post — issued two final decisions in 2014, three in 2015 and not any last year. And they issued three in 2013 and two in 2012 — down from 51 in 2007 and 105 in 1998.

Now, 26 permit commitments are still pending before the commissioners; all are at least 10 years old, and 19 were initially recorded in the 1980s or before.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, in a 2013 finding, said the proceedings over one pending permit threatened to drag on as sustained as the «endless litigation» in a Charles Dickens novel, «Bleak House.»

«Infers and commission members have retired, the original hearing officer has go to ones rewarded, and still this court is trying to glean information from the few and far between record of a 20-year-old hearing,» Pallenberg wrote.

The Legislature created the commission in 1973. Since then, it has reduced entry into 68 state-managed fisheries, from crab to herring to salmon, and contemplate oned nearly 23,000 permit applications.

The CFEC essentially acts as gatekeeper to the reduced entry fisheries — deciding who is and isn’t granted permits that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Before you can turn around it decides to limit a fishery, the commission determines how many permits inclination be issued, then allots them after assessing fishermen’s since participation in the particular fishery and their «economic dependence» on it. Permit decrees are initially made by a hearing officer, though denials are generally fascinated to the commissioners. Even then, the commission isn’t the last word — its decisions can be interested to the courts.

After the initial limits are established and permits handed out — a development that can take decades — the commission doesn’t authorize new permits. And since most of the reduced entry fisheries were created by the 1990s, the commission has faced a waning workload.

But after dispensing with the initial backlog of applications, commissioners now deliver significantly less work to do, according to the other review, conducted by legislative auditors. Commission club have written memos saying that no new fisheries are likely to necessity limitation in the near future, which means that there last will and testament be only sporadic new permit applications to review, if any at all.

The legislative audit promoted that the commissioners be reduced to part-time status, while Lawson, the other auditor, implied that they could be replaced by members of the governor’s Cabinet.

Stutes and a ancient commission employee, Kurt Iverson, described a workplace with shallow oversight in which the commissioners were frequently absent from the thing. Iverson, who says he was fired by the commissioners, gave auditors a document that boasted Brown spent 78 workdays out of the office in 2014.

«Their failure to crown the adjudications in front of them is solely because they’re not trying,» Iverson estimated.

Brown, asked about his attendance, said: «I certainly do have a vim outside my job. But at the same time, I take leave when I’m not here and those dispensation slips are approved by someone other than me.»

The permit applications he’s been line on are «very complex and voluminous,» and entail reviewing tapes and transcripts from multiple hearings, Brown annexed.

«It can be done. It’s a matter of just getting through the files, writing findings,» Brown said. He declined to comment on Iverson’s departure from the commission’s shillelagh.

Policymakers have been pushing for efficiencies at CFEC since 2014, when Where it hurt Republican Rep. Paul Seaton — then the chairman of the House Fisheries Council — proposed to repeal authorization for the commission and transfer its duties to the Department of Fish and Ready.

Seaton’s bill went nowhere, and neither did a similar one introduced a year later by Stutes, the Kodiak Republican.

In February 2016, Walker forewarned his order to transfer the commission’s administrative and research functions to the Department of Fish and Adventurous. But fisheries lobbyist Bobby Thorstenson Jr. sued to stop the order a month later. And the feed of the United Fisherman of Alaska — the state’s primary industry group, of which Thorstenson was sometimes president — subsequently voted to join the suit.

Thorstenson didn’t feel for to requests for comment. But commenting on a fisheries blog in 2015, amid dispute over CFEC’s future, Thorstenson wrote that Brown and Twomley «are incalculable value public servants.»

Thorstenson has worked for crab, scallop, salmon and herring fishing classifies — members of which stand to gain or lose from commission fightings on permits and fisheries limitations. And in the past, Brown, one of the commissioners, has advocated ahead the Legislature for a policy that would benefit one of Thorstenson’s clients.

In 2013, when a commercial assemble represented by Thorstenson was lobbying for a bill to preserve limits on the small but lucrative grandeur scallop fishery, Brown accompanied another lobbyist for the same crowd, former CFEC commissioner Frank Homan, in the halls of the state Capitol, concerting to Laws for the Sea, a fisheries newsletter.

The scallop fishery permits had been «methodically consolidated» to unprejudiced a few business partners, and Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton was raising interviews about whether the trend violated legal prohibitions on creating «single rights» to fisheries, the Alaska Journal of Commerce wrote in a subsequent think-piece. It chided Brown and Twomley for treating the consolidation with a «nothing-to-see-here carriage» that «fails to meet their obligations to put the state and its constitution before.»

Brown said the commission had already taken a position on the scallop fishery that aligned with the commercial fishing industriousness’s. And he downplayed the commission’s work alongside the industry to keep the scallop fishery limitations sound.

«If that’s a source of concern to you, fishermen wouldn’t be able to talk to fellows of the Board of Fisheries,» whose members make specific decisions that branch out harvests among different groups of fishermen, Brown said. He and Twomley had no monetary interest in the scallop fishery, Brown added.

The legislation lacks any provisions to specifically sermon the permit backlog or the commission’s obsolete computer system.

Sam Cotten, Walker’s commissioner of fish and game, symbolized the bill was written to have a realistic shot of passing and is a good start.

«You cognizant of how it works with the Legislature: You can put a bill in for show or you can put one in for go,» said Cotten, a prior Alaska House speaker. «We think we can get that much through.»

Commercial fisheries apologists argue that their industry has fought to protect the commission in factor because it offers great service.

In addition to limiting fisheries and make a big deal ofing decisions on permits, the commission also has a section devoted to issuing annual allows — which is the sole point of contact for nearly all commercial fishermen. And the portion gets rave reviews for its responsiveness, with Lawson, the auditor, describing it as «well-run and very respected.»

«You get a permit and those guys get that permit right out to you, on previously, and take care of problems when people have problems,» required Jerry McCune, the current president of UFA’s board, in a phone interview from his runabout in Prince William Sound.

But some observers say that the fishing effort could benefit from more efficiency at the commission, since surplus money in its budget — which has come from fees paid by fishermen — could be all in on other commercial fishing programs, which are currently under coercion amid Alaska’s budget crisis.

«I’m frustrated to see the reluctance on the part of fishermen and the commissioners to be arguable to change and more efficiencies,» said Mary McDowell, who was a CFEC commissioner from 1997 to 2005. «I meditate on they need to realize that if you could get the same good serving from CFEC for less money, that frees up that net to go into other needs to keep their fisheries healthy.»

McCune claimed commercial fishermen are open to finding additional savings at the commission. But they objected to Walker’s administrative brotherhood to move the commission’s functions to the fish and game department because they reckon those two agencies should be separate.

«UFA didn’t say, ‘Absolutely no changes to CFEC,'» believed McCune. He said there’s room to talk about moving the commissioners to part-time rank in the future, though he added that Brown and Twomley do a «great job.»

Stutes mean she wants more aggressive reforms to the commission than those tendered in Walker’s new bill, though she added that she’s not sure what built they will take.

«There has to be a change if they’re simply not up f study the work done,» she said, referring to the commissioners’ failure to clear the backlog of permit commitments. «I’ve been asking for three years and I’ve been told the same narrative for three years: ‘Give us six months and we’ll have everything done.’ Now it’s interval to say, ‘Well, it isn’t done.'»

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