WA FWC On 5669: Opposition, and ‘Deep Concern’

Just in case you missed it, the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission fired off a statement against the part of SB 5669 that would neuter the citizen panel.

In the press release, which came after hours Friday evening, the FWC said the bill would “reverse the will of the majority of the people as reflected in Referendum 45.”

The statement also expresses “deep concern” about the Senate bill’s attempt to merge Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife with State Parks and the Recreation and Conservation Office.

“The cost savings identified in the bill are relatively small in light of the substantial reorganizational effort that a merger would entail,” the FWC says.

SB 5669 and its companion bill in the House, 1850, came at the request of Governor Gregoire who last December proposed merging WDFW, State Parks and the RCO in response to the $4.6 billion revenue shortfall as well as drives in recent years to make natural resource management more efficient.

During a public hearing before the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee Feb. 10, sport anglers were very protective of the commission and the agency.

“Do not allow this merger take place,” said Norman Reinhardt, president of the Kitsap Poggie Club, adding that it would turn the clock back, putting politics before science.

(For more coverage of the hearing, see articles by The Columbian and Kitsap Sun.)

On the other side of the fence, Gregoire’s policy adviser for natural resources John Mankowski explained to High Country News, “The commission form of government can work, but it’s an expensive way to run government. It takes a lot of time and money to hold meetings all around the state and get input. The commission also makes fine-scale decisions about management that should be at the discretion of the director (of Fish and Wildlife).”

The commission would become an advisory group under 5669. Currently, it sets policies and regulations for managing the state’s wildlife, as well as oversees WDFW.

An audio file of the Fish & Wildlife Commission’s conference call last Friday has been posted. In it, Chair Miranda Wecker of Naselle explains how the statement came about.

“I drafted this because I thought this agency had something to say — the commission in particular — had something to say about the real costs of mergers, since we have some fairly recent experience with that. When the Department of Fisheries and Department of Wildlife merged, it was not an easy thing, it took a lot of time,” she said.

Commissioner Rollie Schmitten of Lake Wenatchee termed Gregoire’s estimated savings of $2.5 million and elimination of 14 jobs — which would come from shrinking the number of natural resource agencies from 11 to five — “very, very modest.”

Commissioner Chuck Perry of Moses Lake said merger efficiencies are a long ways off in the future.

“The pains of the merger, if the combination of the Department of Fisheries and Department of (Wildlife) are any indication, are extremely time consuming and extremely long lasting. The efficiency gains are simply not there. This may not move the legislators by itself, but I think put together in a package like this letter outlines, it makes a  fairly strong argument, in fact a very strong argument,” said Perry.

Earlier last week, a WDFW manager told me he didn’t think the two halves were yet fully joined since the 1994 merger.

There was a bit of discussion among commissioners on when to send the statement out. Schmitten, Wecker and David Jennings of Olympia all thought sooner was better so as to have an influence on the legislature.

“I’m starting to hear questions where the commission actually stands. So many people have come forward. We’ve had an initial round of hearings. And there looms this question: ‘The Parks Commission has come out in opposition. Where is the Fish & Wildlife Commission?’ So I think it’s timely we do make a statement,” Scmitten said.

Putting a statement out came to a vote; there were no votes against it.

Here’s the full text of the commission’s statement:

The Fish and Wildlife Commission believes that the Governor has demonstrated true leadership in proposing significant government reform measures. The budget crisis facing the state is without precedent. Hard choices must be faced. Every reasonable means to increase the efficiency and productivity of government agencies should be explored. It is with respect that the Commission offers these perspectives on the provisions of SB 5669 proposing the merger of natural resource agencies.

Changes to the Commission Role

The Commission is opposed to changes to the Commission authority proposed in SB 5669 which would reverse the will of the majority of the people as reflected in Referendum 45. Following the popular vote approving Referendum 45, the Legislature endorsed the special role of the Fish and Wildlife Commission as an “open and deliberative process that encourages public involvement and increases public confidence in department decision making” (RCW 77.04.013).

The popular vote demonstrated that the public wants this unique access to fish and wildlife decision-makers and wants greater openness and transparency in fish and wildlife decision-making. The people made it clear that without access and openness, their confidence in decision-making will be undermined. The special importance voters placed on decisions affecting fish and wildlife is self-evident in the results of the vote: the referendum was approved by over 60% and passed in every county of the state.

SB 5669 eliminates all aspects of the Commission’s authority—its power to appoint and remove the Director as well as its authority to set regulations. Both elements of its power are essential if the Commission, as the people intended, is to establish policy for the agency and hold the agency accountable for its implementation. If approved, the role of the Commission would be reduced to one that is advisory in nature.

Citizens in this state, and in almost every other state in the country, have put their trust in the Commission process as a way to reduce the influence of politics on natural resource management. No public policy issue can be fully insulated from the political process. Nevertheless, management of the public’s natural heritage of resources is widely seen as falling in a special category. In this arena more than others, it is most important to limit the influence of short sighted thinking, narrow special interests, and shifting electoral politics. The long-term view and the public trust must be safeguarded.

Merger of the Departments

The Commission expresses deep concern about the added administrative burdens associated with the merger proposed in this legislation. The Department has relatively recent experience with the very real and costly logistical and procedural hurdles presented by a major merger. When agencies are merged, a great deal of time must be spent in meetings focused on a range of procedural questions that must be addressed. Procedural matters take center stage, reducing the time spent achieving the agency’s mission. New lines of authority have to be established. In some cases, the challenges of integration take many years to truly address the complexities of integration. In some cases, a dominant unit emerges and the program of the subordinate agency loses its ability to advance its interests.

The cost savings identified in the bill are relatively small in light of the substantial reorganizational effort that a merger would entail.

In recent years, budget cuts have taken their toll on staff numbers. The Department has fewer employees with which to achieve our mission.  The remaining staff are being asked to do more and more. The Commission holds serious reservations regarding the expenditure of significant staff time and resources on the many administrative issues that will need to be resolved if a merger takes place.

During the last legislative session, the commission posted a statement against SB 6813, which would have folded WDFW into DNR. That bill eventually died.

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