The most recent Haines heliski map committee convened toward the end of last year. After months of work and controversy over perceived conflicts of interest, the borough is now addressing the question of whether the group should exist at all.
Earlier this month Assemblyman Tom Morphet introduced an ordinance that would eliminate the heliski map committee. Instead, the responsibility of reviewing map amendment proposals would fall solely on the assembly.
The assembly sent Morphet’s draft ordinance to the commerce committee for review. That group took it up on Thursday.
Morphet kicked off the meeting, explaining why he thinks the process should change.
“Because the authority lies with this group,” said Morphet. “The process should lie with this group. Otherwise we’ve essentially bungled up and complicated a process that may not be as complicated as we’ve made it.”
In Morphet’s proposal, the assembly tackles the heliski map in a series of committee of the whole meetings, that are less structured than a regular assembly meeting.
He laid out five benefits to back up his reasoning. The first, to reduce conflict of interest. The most recent map committee was overcome with controversy, after two heliski company stakeholders, who submitted map changes, landed seats in the group.
“I think when we have the people with the strongest interest beginning to set the policy, we just set ourselves up for recriminations, if not legal problems,” said Morphet.
Second, he said it would reduce the cost to the borough by minimizing the number of meetings and dedicated staff time. Morphet said doing it this way would better align with code, as the assembly is the government body tasked with establishing policy. He also said eliminating the committee would reduce both duplication of efforts and the burden on the borough manager.
“We need to boil down this process,” said Morphet. “And say very respectively to the stakeholders. I’m sorry, we have other stuff to do here.”
Tourism Director Leslie Ross objected to the idea of eliminating the committee.
“By taking away that process I think you’re taking away key public interaction,” said Ross. “This is the chance for conservation groups, the industry, public members, for Fish and Game, it’s a chance for that conversation to happen.”
Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Ryan Johnson also advocated for maintaining a map committee.
“I think you could streamline the map committee process. Keep the burden off the borough assembly’s time, and make it all work a whole lot better,” said Johnson.
Residents Carolyn Weishahn and Thom Ely both agreed the committee should be eliminated.
“I think when it goes from the committee to the manager to the assembly you’re kind of trying to play catch up,” said Weishahn.
“I think it’s, although informative to the people on the committee, it’s kind of a waste of time just for the process,” said Ely. “And I would prefer to see the process just streamlined.”
Assemblyman Ron Jackson chaired the most recent map committee. He said at first, he couldn’t imagine Morphet’s proposal working.
“I said no way could I stand to go through what it would take on the assembly trying to go through this stuff we’ve just gone through in a committee, with meeting after meeting after meeting,” said Jackson.
But, Jackson said there may be other ways to streamline the process. He proposed a scenario where responsibility is divided between staff, existing committees and the planning commission, but no map committee before the assembly gets involved.
Ely also suggested engaging the planning commission, and Assemblyman Mike Case liked that idea. Though, it would involve changing some things around in code. Case was not as keen on Morphet’s idea of putting it all on the assembly.
Another suggestion came from resident Eric Holle. He recommended map changes be judged by an established set of standards, as is the case in British Columbia.
Case and Margaret Friedenaur, the two commerce committee members present at the meeting, didn’t favor one idea over the others. They said they would present all of the options to the assembly.
The discussion also touched briefly on the makeup of the heliski map committee, but what happens with that depends on the fate of Morphet’s ordinance.