Fish and Wildlife Commission appointments draw ire, fire from mid-state legislators
By Scott Panitz - WNPA Olympia News Bureau
When Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7th District, Wauconda) found out that Gov. Chris Gregoire had appointed Jay Kehne to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, he could only scratch his head.
A longtime conservationist and Omak resident, Kehne was named to fill a vacant Eastern Washington seat on the Fish and Wildlife Commission by gubernatorial appointment on Dec. 6.
“I talked to her about this appointment back in December,” said the House deputy minority leader. “You would think when they’re making an appointment that’s critical for rural parts of the state there would be some communication. She’s got a person advising her on natural resource issues. Evidently he’s more in tune with Eastern Washington than I am.”
Kretz said he is frustrated with the appointment because there are only three positions on the commission — of nine total — that are guaranteed to represent the region east of the Cascades and he wants someone whose personal values line up more directly with those of Eastern Washington.
Kehne, said Kretz, is not that guy.
The current process
While there is an oversight process for the governor’s Fish and Wildlife Commission appointments, Kretz said it’s hardly an effective one.
In accordance with the Revised Code of Washington 77.04.030, appointments to the Fish and Wildlife Commission are made by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.
But confirmation is frequently bypassed. An appointee can legally serve on the commission while undergoing Senatorial review under RCW 43.06.092, which states, “Any gubernatorial appointee subject to senate confirmation shall continue to serve unless rejected by a vote of the Senate.”
Confirmations often don’t even make it past the Senate Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee to be heard on the floor, and historically, many commission members have spent their entire six-year terms unconfirmed, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Phil Anderson.
Bradley Smith, who was confirmed in April last year, is the only current member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission whose appointment has been affirmed by the Senate. Commission chairwoman Miranda Wecker and Vice Chairman Gary Douvia, along with Chuck Perry, have served unconfirmed since January 2007.
Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40th District, Orcas Island), chairman of the Senate ENRM committee, which handles not just the Fish and Wildlife Commission, but a majority of gubernatorial appointments, said he has a consistent policy when it comes to hearing and recommending appointees for confirmation.
According to Ranker, he sends out information on each appointee to his committee members and gives them time to do personal research. After a few days, he sends a note of his intent to confirm them all without a hearing. If any member of the committee has questions about a specific person, then Ranker pulls that person off of the confirmation list and holds a separate hearing.
Importantly though, he said he does not call a hearing if he thinks that an appointee would be denied confirmation.
“If I don’t have the votes,” he said, “I don’t believe it’s respectful to bring somebody before my committee just so we can turn them down. These are individual people and you’ve got to be respectful.”
One of Governor Gregoire’s December appointees to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon, was recommended for confirmation out of the ENRM committee Jan. 24.
It is up to the Senate Rules Committee to determine if there will be a floor vote.
“There are other conflicts with members on and off of my committee,” said Ranker of Kehne, adding that he intends to set a hearing date for Kehne, though it has not yet been scheduled.
Ranker responded to why the more tenured members have yet to move past committee, saying: “The other [unconfirmed] members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission don’t have support.”
“If you think about it from voters’ [perspective], if you’re not going to approve them or you’re not going to have a process, then just let the governor appoint them and they’ll live with it,” said Sen. Jerome Delvin (R-8th District, Richland), ENRM ranking minority member. “I think it’s broken government. I don’t know what more to say. It’s not working.”
Kretz echoed Delvin’s statement.
“I think that the Senate confirmation process shouldn’t be the joke that it is currently,” he said.
“It’s becoming more and more of an issue and I think it’s something that the legislature needs to look at,” said Delvin. “I think more and more people are starting to look at those and say, ‘Okay, they’re not being confirmed, but they’re still holding [positions] so then what’s the value of the process?’”
Anderson agrees, saying it would be beneficial for everyone if all the commissioners received public hearings and confirmation.
“It adds a point at which the public can provide their perspectives on the governor’s appointments leading up to a vote by the Senate,” said Anderson, who was promoted from deputy director at the Fish and Wildlife Department three years ago. “It also provides an oversight from the Senate, which has members across all 39 counties and can bring a higher level of recognition of those individuals in putting them in that office.”
The current confirmation process ”gives a chance for some posturing and people arguing about the appointee, but there’s really no teeth in it,” said Kretz.
Delvin said that could be changed either by legislation or by a shift in the behavior of the ENRM committee chairman, who alone controls whether or not appointees receive hearings.
“It’s usually left to the chair how those appointments go,” said Delvin. “I hear more and more legislators talking about needing to look at the process and maybe doing something different.”
So what of Jay Kehne?
Kretz is not the only person who opposes Kehne.
Delvin said he has received many emails and calls from folks opposing his appointment and the Okanogan County Commissioners wrote a letter to Olympia in opposition.
“It’s not a personal attack on Jay Kehne, it’s just a conflict of interest in Conservation Northwest,” said Jim DeTro, Okanogan County commissioner.
Conservation Northwest is an environmentalist agency based in Bellingham. It has worked on preserving grey wolves in the state as well as helping the state to buy conservation easements in Okanogan County, both of which don’t sit well with DeTro.
“He gets a check from them and they’re definitely, definitely not Eastern Washington values that they represent,” said DeTro.
Kehne has hit back against these criticisms, saying that he has lived in Eastern Washington for 44 years and cites his 31 years of experience with U.S. Department of Agriculture natural resources conservation service “listening to ranchers and farmers and helping them with conservation on their properties,” he said.
“I’m a life long hunter and I know what worries hunters have about wolves returning to our state, I talk with them everyday,” he said. “I may not be anti-wolf like some people in Okanogan County, but then again, there are a lot of people all over Eastern Washington who have mixed views of whether wolves are good or bad.”
Teri Mitschelen, Okanogan County Republican Party chairman, recently wrote in an editorial letter sent to the Omak Chronicle and the Wenatchee World that Kehne would have been a good choice for the commission as an at-large candidate, but as a representative of Eastern Washington, “his personal philosophies of land management and protection of species do not give adequate consideration to the needs of the people who live in Eastern Washington,” he wrote.
Anderson, who knows Kehne from the testimony Kehne gave regarding the recently adopted Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, said he thinks Kehne is a good addition to the commission.
“I thought he took a really pragmatic approach in his perspectives and positions in the various aspects and elements of the plan,” said Anderson. “While he has a very strong conservation ethic, he also recognized the challenges that wolves in our state are presenting to people, particularly in his part of the state, and was willing and ready to look for ways to find solutions for the problems that were created for that segment of our constituency.”
Despite the criticism, Kehne maintained, ”my values are very much Eastern Washington.”
“I think there would be a tremendous turnout,” said Kretz of potential testifiers should Kehne be granted a confirmation hearing. “Just about every day I’m hearing of a new group or organization or county commissioners that are coming out in opposition.”
He said he believes there would be people there to support the candidate, too.