Conflict of interest accusations cast a shadow over the Haines heliski map committee since its inception in October. The objections led to consultations with the borough attorney and two citizen appeals.
Now, whether the work of that committee will amount to anything is in question. At its meeting Tuesday, the assembly decided to postpone any changes to the commercial ski tour areas map until area wildlife studies are complete. Then, the borough will form a new map committee under updated guidelines.
Despite the conflict of interest and wildlife concerns, the map committee kept meeting over the last couple months. The five-person group mulled over areas in the Chilkat Valley that two heliski companies want added to the map.
Part owners of those two heliski companies each had seats on the group. One, Sean Brownell, was appointed to a designated ‘industry seat’ and allowed to vote on his own proposals. The other, Scott Sundberg, was able to get on the committee by applying for one of the general resident seats. He did not vote on his company’s requests.
“There’s many issues that’s been raised about this,” Assemblyman Ron Jackson, who was the chair of the map committee. “The credibility of the committee was kind of tainted a little bit.”
Although he defended much of the group’s efforts, he made a motion to put the work aside and wait.
“It seems like the right thing to do to just delay this whole implementation, take all the recommendations we have, put them in a file and move them on to a new committee convened some time in the summer,” Jackson said.
Jackson proposed waiting until the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases upcoming studies on Chilkat Valley mountain goat and bear habitat. It’s something people like Lynn Canal Conservation President Eric Holle asked for from the beginning.
“Frankly, this horse should not have left the barn,” Holle said.
Jackson said in addition to having the wildlife studies in-hand, a new committee could be convened in a ‘cleaner’ way, without the conflict of interest concerns that have plagued this one.
Conflicts of interest were the issue in Holle’s appeal. Although his concern was related to the map committee, it centered on a different group: the Tourism Advisory Board. The assembly asked the TAB to draw up a recommendation on the code dictating the formation of the map committee.
Holle pointed out that two of the TAB members are heliski industry stakeholders: Sean Gaffney of Alaska Mountain Guides and Sundberg of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures.
“So the broad issue here is, is a board that is chaired and co-chaired by heliski permit holders and who is tasked with promoting tourism an appropriate body to form a heliski map committee?” Holle asked.
Holle said Sundberg and Gaffney have significant financial interests in the makeup of the map committee. He wanted the assembly to disregard the TAB’s recommendation.
Dana Hallett’s appeal also alleged conflicts of interest. He said Jackson should not have allowed Alaska Heliskiing owner and committee member Brownell to vote on his own company’s map requests.
“Ultimately, a flawed process ensures flawed results,” said Hallett.
The borough attorney wrote opinions on both appeals. Patrick Munson said the assembly should deny Holle’s appeal, because the impact of the TAB recommendation on Gaffney and Sundberg’s financial interests is ‘entirely conjectural.’
As for Hallett’s arguments, the attorney agreed that Brownell should not have voted on his own proposals. But he says the financial impacts of the vote may also be too conjectural to prove.
Some on the assembly said that their unanimous decision to delay map changes until the summer solved Hallett and Holle’s concerns. The assembly voted 4-2 to deny Hallett’s appeal because the previous motion made it moot. Holle’s appeal was closer. The assembly was split down the middle about whether the TAB vote violated conflict of interest rules. Mayor Jan Hill broke a 3-3 tie in favor of denying the appeal.
Although the assembly rejected both appeals, they seemed to agree with many of the points raised. Assembly member Tom Morphet said when advisory groups like TAB are stacked with people who have interests in an industry, they’re basically lobbyists in everything but name.
“I think that our advisory committees have somehow been slowly evolved into essentially groups that lobby us at our own expense,” Morphet said.
The borough attorney also saw a problem there. Munson said the assembly might want to either revise the conflict of interest rules around advisory committees or limit advisory committee membership.
The assembly delaying heliski map changes to the summer means that the areas Alaska Heliskiing and SEABA hoped would open this winter will stay closed for now.
The recommendations made by the embattled map committee will also have to wait. A new map committee will come together after the wildlife studies are released. That group will decide whether the old committee’s advice is worth taking into account.