(Environment Hawai`i editor Patricia Tummons has been reporting on Wespac since 1994. This commentary reflects her personal view.)
Enough is enough.
Enough “complimentary” upgrades to swank hotel suites and first-class cabins. The bills may not reflect it, but someone (the taxpayer) is still paying.
Enough travel, at taxpayer expense, to exotic destinations on the flimsiest of excuses.
Enough extravagant parties where no one will say who is footing the bill. C’mon, at least try to look like you’re sharing in our pain.
Enough with using federal funds to purchase the allegiance of people in underprivileged communities, in Hawai`i and across the Pacific, whom you then use to advance your own political agenda.
Kitty Simonds, I’m talking to you and your enablers:
•Folks at the National Marine Fisheries Service who are so worn down by your constant badgering that they no longer put up a fight;
•The members of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, who find it easier to float in your wake than to ask uncomfortable questions – about council expenditures and projects, about compensation, about your very suitability for the post you hold. The last two council members who challenged you – Peter Young and Laura Thielen – were not thanked for their efforts;
•Your large retinue of advisors, who provide the council with a scrim of scientific respectability.
The meeting last year of the Council Coordination Committee is by no means the only instance of Wespac’s extravagance. At a time when the national economy was still recovering from a recession and federal budget cuts were impairing the government’s ability to carry out its most fundamental responsibilities, it proceeded with a conference at one of the most luxurious resorts in the state. (For details on the 2012 CCC meeting, see the article in the May 2013 edition of Environment Hawai`i.)
No one present seemed bothered; to question the propriety of the setting would be to question their very presence.
In any event, because there is so little public oversight, participants have little reason to worry that they will be held to account. Meetings of the regional councils rarely attract any but those most immediately affected by their decisions. And if council meetings fly under the radar, the CCC – the council of councils, if you will – has a public profile so low it burrows.
But this month, they’re at it again. Although CCC meetings are theoretically public, the one to be held in early May is so inconveniently scheduled – one day on, three days off, and a day and a half back on – that it is unlikely anyone who doesn’t live next door to the Mayflower Hotel could be expected to attend. Although council members, staff, and advisors are supposed to be occupied in between sessions of the CCC with attendance at the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries conference, it beggars belief to think they aren’t going to be taking advantage of their proximity to the Capitol to pay a few courtesy calls on the Hawai`i delegation and other members of Congress whose support is required to keep the funding pipeline to Wespac flowing.
* * *
Lessons Not Learned
Four years ago, the Government Accountability Office reviewed charges of improper (if not illegal) practices by Simonds and council members. Although it did not find any smoking gun linking her to actions that are expressly prohibited, it did come up with strong recommendations intended to improve transparency and build public trust.
Those recommendations could have been written on toilet tissue, for all the changes that are apparent in council practices.
For example, the GAO recommended that the council maintain “current and archived copies of documents available for public inspection, such as the council’s meeting minutes and briefing book materials, on the council’s web site.”
Anyone attending a council meeting cannot fail to be impressed by the towering stacks of paper set out for the public at the start of every new agenda topic. Nowadays, council members receive a flash drive holding all the documents in the briefing book compiled for each meeting; it would be trivial to post this online. Not only would this let members of the public be privy to the same materials council members will be using in their deliberations, it would also save the council thousands of dollars in office supplies and printing costs – to say nothing of the burden on the environment from all the wasted paper.
Yet to this day, the council’s website (http://wpcouncil.org) has never had a public link to any of the briefing book materials. In this, it stands alone among all the eight regional fishery management councils. Every other one has entered the digital age, with public links to the materials distributed to council members. (Of course, documents that are not to be made available to the general public but to which council members alone are to have access can be easily omitted from the lineup.)
Then there’s the suggestion that the council inform the public of the types of records available for review at the council office versus what can only be obtained through a Freedom-of-Information-Act request. It was also urged to disclose the procedures required to review public records as well as to file a FOIA request.
That, too, is undone.
The GAO recommended that the council adopt procedures to make sure that if any council member should recuse himself or herself from voting, the specific cause for recusal be included in meeting minutes, and that it post minutes and briefing books from past meetings on its website. These recommendations also remain on the council’s lengthy to-do list.
* * *
But while Simonds can’t be bothered to carry out these relatively simple, straightforward measures that would go far to make council actions more transparent, she does find the time and means to undertake initiatives that have little bearing on the council’s core functions.
Take the case of the green sea turtle. For years, Simonds has made no secret of her desire to have turtles once more be slaughtered in the name of what she says is Hawaiian custom. She set up her own Hawaiian Civic Club (she’s president, two council staffers are other officers), and successfully lobbied the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to petition NMFS to remove Hawaiian turtles from the protections offered by the Endangered Species Act.
Of course, once the fisheries service sought public comment on the proposed delisting, Simonds put on her council hat and enthusiastically gave the agency’s blessing to the AOHCC petition. No conflict there, no?
Then there’s the arrant nonsense she spouted last summer – on national television, no less. Simonds was invited to be interviewed, along with several Native American leaders, on the PBS Newshour program. When asked about the impacts of climate change on the islands, she responded by blaming the depletion of nearshore fisheries to tourists overfeeding fish and by saying that if corals are being damaged in more acidic waters, they can simply be transplanted to places where they will be out of harm’s way.
Despite those bizarre claims, a few weeks later, Simonds – from her council throne, and assisted by her public relations person, Sylvia Spalding – issued a news release on behalf of the Native American group First Stewards, calling on the federal government to consult with her, as a leader of the group, on how to respond to climate change.
* * *
That Simonds has managed to appropriate so much power reveals a flaw in the very structure of the regional fishery management councils and the law setting them up. They’re neither fish nor fowl – neither government agencies nor private entities. But they enjoy the best of both worlds: freedom from the traditional standards of accountability to which government agencies are held, but also the generous taxpayer funding that private non-profits would die for. Council members need not observe the usual conflict-of-interest restrictions imposed on other government advisory board members; they can – indeed, are practically expected to – vote their wallets except in very limited, extraordinary circumstances. In other words, councils have become little more than lobbies, lavishly underwritten by taxpayers, for commercial fishing interests.
Council executive directors such as Simonds enjoy broad leeway in how they use those government funds. Technically, they submit budgets and receive grants, based on those budgets, for their operational expenses. But the National Marine Fisheries Service allows them to stray from their budgets with re-appropriations of up to 10 percent of line items requiring no advance approval whatsoever. For an agency receiving millions of dollars a year from the U.S. Treasury, that represents quite a slush fund.
It would be great if Congress were to rethink, and not simply reauthorize, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which set up the council framework in the first place and which is up for reauthorization this year. Given the current state of political discord and paralysis, that’s hardly likely.
Failing that, there is still one huge step that can be taken to move fisheries management in the Pacific into the 21st century: Simonds can and should resign.