The Alaska Board of Fisheries’ 2019 statewide finfish meeting in Anchorage. (Photo credit Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries violated the state’s open meetings law. That’s according to the Alaska State Ombudsman, who released a critical report Tuesday saying the board improperly shifted the location of its Cook Inlet finfish meeting earlier this year with little public notice. The location issue is expected to be revisited again next month.

When the Board of Fish moved its Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting from Kenai to Anchorage, it took a lot of people by surprise. Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel was one of them. 

“It wasn’t on the agenda,” Gabriel said. “We just happened to get a heads up that they were going to consider that.”

This is a big deal because for nearly two decades, these finfish meetings — which set fishing regulations for commercial, sport and subsistence fishing — have been in Anchorage. But last year, the board decided to rotate the locations between Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su. 

Gabriel said fishermen from outside of Anchorage had been asking for this for years. 

“These meetings last for two weeks,” he said. “And that’s a commitment for folks to go up there and participate”

Gabriel said he thought the fight was finished after the board voted last year to hold its 2020 meeting on the Kenai Peninsula. But then word came down that the board was poised to reconsider at its January meeting in Anchorage. Gabriel and other area officials drove up to speak to board members. But then the message changed again. 

“We were told that they were not going to have the vote that day,” he said. “Apparently they had some second thoughts about the public notice part of it. So we turned around and came home.”

After they left the board did vote after all. By a single vote, it changed the location of the 2020 meeting back to Anchorage. Board of Fish Chair Reed Morisky did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday. But in meeting tape from January, he admitted there had been some confusion in the room. 

“So, I take full responsibility for that, there was no intent to mislead,” he said.

Investigators couldn’t account for the last-minute change, either.

“He was not able to tell the investigator what the circumstances were that changed,” said Alaska State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.

Burkhart looked into the whole affair following a complaint to her office. But she said it was clear that the board wasn’t following the rules. 

“It really did not follow the spirit of the law, which is that public entities do the public’s work in public,” she said.

The ombudsman advised the board to hold a fresh vote, which it will do at its October meeting in Anchorage. 

Board of Fish Chair Reed Morisky wrote a letter to the ombudsman pledging the rotating meeting location policy will be revisited next month. Kenai‘s Mayor Brian Gabriel said he doesn’t have a lot of faith the board will change course.

“I hope they look at what they did and the effects on how those decisions have on our communities and would give that some consideration,” Gabriel said.

Still, he said he’s grateful the ombudsman stepped in.

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