A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

A helicopter in Alaska. (Kevin Duffy/Flickr Creative Commons)

The recently formed heliski map advisory committee is facing questions from many directions. The latest opposition comes in the form of two resident appeals. They’re both centered on one main theme: conflict of interest.

“The credibility of our government is in question,” says Dana Hallett. His appeal focuses directly on the heliski map committee.

“We live in a borough, in a community that politically is charged and I think that it’s important that we lay out these expectations for our public officials so that the public has the confidence knowing that our representatives and the people that are speaking on our behalf are doing it in a fair and balanced way,” says Hallett.

Hallett says though the committee is working hard at their task, the issue is how it was set up in the first place. He believes heliski map committee chair Ron Jackson erred when he allowed Sean Brownell, owner of Alaska Heliskiing, and Scott Sundberg, who owns Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures, to vote and deliberate on any map amendments.

“Most of the votes that are taken have to do with proposed changes in the heliski map that arguably benefit both industry folks because they are non-exclusive areas,” says Hallett.

In fact, all of the map amendment proposals were submitted by Brownell and Sundberg. The committee was set up with one seat for an industry representative. Brownell was appointed. Sundberg was chosen at random for a seat representing the public. Neither of these actions are prohibited by borough code, but they did generate questions about conflict of interest – particularly Sundberg’s appointment.

Based on attorney advice, they decided that Brownell could participate in all deliberations and voting, while Sundberg should recuse himself from voting on his own proposals. He has still been allowed to deliberate on those proposals.

Hallett thinks Jackson misinterpreted the attorney’s opinion by not excluding Brownell from voting on his own proposals. He says it’s important that the public is completely represented.

“When you have a committee that is heavily stacked in one direction or the other you don’t get a complete expression of what the will of the people is or should be,” says Hallett.

Hallett suggests disbanding the committee altogether.

“The only way to remedy the violation is to disregard any of the recommendations that they come up with and frankly to start again and do it correctly,” says Hallett.

Eric Holle is the president of Lynn Canal Conservation. He filed an appeal of the Tourism Advisory Board decisions for deliberating and voting on issues in which members have a conflict of interest.

“As long as there are special interests defining how government policy is made, then people will not have faith in their government,” says Holle.

It’s a different group, but a similar argument. And both appellants cite violations of the same code relating to members of boards, committees or commissions separating themselves from matters that they have a substantial personal or financial interest in.

In October, after questions about Sundberg’s appointment to the committee, the borough assembly referred an ordinance revising the makeup of the heliski committee to the TAB. The board recommended that the heliski committee change from five to seven members. And that the industry and environmental chairs are excluded from voting. The two additional members would represent the TAB and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

Holle says TAB chair Sean Gaffney and vice-chair Sundberg should not have taken part in the voting because of their financial interests in the heliski industry. Gaffney is the owner Alaska Mountain Guides and also holds a heliski permit, though he has not submitted map changes.

“They have a significant financial interest in how that map committee is formed and who sits on it,” says Holle.

Holle says the assembly should disregard the board’s recommendations. He thinks the TAB shouldn’t be involved in the process at all.

Gaffney, Sundberg and Jackson did not respond to requests for comment by airtime.

The heliski committee is facing another challenge, from Assemblyman Tom Morphet. Morphet proposed doing away with future heliski committees, leaving the map amendment process up to the assembly. All three of these challenges to the heliski map committee are on the assembly agenda for its Nov. 29 meeting.