An Alaska Marine Highway System vessel at sea. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities photo)

An Alaska Marine Highway System vessel at sea. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities photo)

Dunleavy gains control to pick all nine members of state ferry board July 1 under executive order

Order ends all existing terms that day; takes away legislative leaders’ appointing of four seats.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy will control all nine members of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board as of July 1 — including the ability to immediately replace any members even if they have time remaining on their terms — under an executive order issued Monday, unless the Legislature rejects it within 60 days.

Such a rejection is currently being evaluated, said Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, in an interview Thursday. Under the former rules the governor, Senate president and House speaker each picked two of the six public seats, with the governor controlling the three remaining picks designated to represent specific entities.

”I’m really concerned about it,” Stevens said. “I like the Legislature having input into that board. It’s very important for me in Kodiak, it’s important to a lot of people in Southeast Alaska as well. Who knows how it’s going to turn out, but I think we’re unlikely to give up our authority to appoint people to boards.”

The executive order, among 12 issued by Dunleavy the day before this year’s legislative session started, states as the reason simply “I find that it is in the best interests of efficient administration to reorganize the membership” of the ferry system’s operations board. The board essentially acts as an advisory board on all ferry system matters to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, the parent agency of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The terms of all current members will end July 1 under the executive order, although Dunleavy can reappoint members if he chooses. Members currently serve staggered six-year terms.

Stevens said he’s having various committees review each of the executive orders during the first two weeks of the session. The Legislature can reject an executive order with a majority vote in a joint session during the first 60 days of the session.

House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said she plans to review the intent and implications of the executive order, but wasn’t familiar enough with it as of Thursday to comment.

State Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat, questioned the reasons for the order.

“I think it’s a functional board today and I’m not sure why there’s a need for change,” he said. “So I will look into it.”

Dunleavy has come under heavy criticism for his policies and actions related to the Alaska Marine Highway since taking office in late 2018. He initially proposed cutting to the ferry system’s budget by two-thirds and appointed a task force to consider options including privatizing it. He subsequently vetoed large amounts of funding approved by the Legislature during his initial years.

More recently he has essentially proposed flat funding each year in his budgets for the ferry system, which has gotten a large infusion of federal funds intended for vessel and infrastructure upgrades. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who played a key role in those funds, implored Dunleavy late last year to spend the necessary state matching funds to secure the federal allocations because state ferries had been allowed to “break down” and go “into a death spiral” due to lack of “investment in operations and maintenance.”

Dunleavy, speaking to reporters several days later, strongly disagreed with Murkowski’s characterization. Also speaking favorably of recent actions involving the ferry system by both state and federal officials was Edward Page, a Juneau resident and one of the AMH Operations Board members Dunleavy will be able to replace on July 1.

“I’m not really too worried one way or another,” said Page, a Senate president appointee in 2022 whose term is scheduled to expire in 2027, when asked about the possibility of being replaced. “If they don’t want me it’s fine, it’s less work for me. If they want me than I feel honored to be part of that. I think the bigger thing for me is that it’s on the government’s radar screen. That’s pretty good.”

Page — who served 54 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, including 33 in Alaska — said he has decades of familiarity with the ferry system and he was “a little worried the marine highway system is kind of atrophied — that’s an understatement over the last couple of years — but I’m glad to see it’s on people’s radar screen.” He said his experiences as a board member with top state transportation department officials appointed by Dunleavy have been encouraging in terms of future plans for ferry operations and upgrades.

As for the board, Page said he isn’t aware of any distinct differences in the policy leanings or decision-making of members based on who appointed them.

“I thought was a pretty good cross-section,” he said. “They weren’t all a bunch of clones, they were not the same. They’re all different backgrounds, which I thought was good.”

In addition to the six public members, one member is the deputy DOT&PF commissioner, one a representative for unionized ferry employees, and one a representative of an Alaska Native organization or tribe from a community served by the ferry system.

Jessica Bowers, a spokesperson for Dunleavy, when asked in an email about the governor’s motivation for the order, declined to answer directly, citing his constitutional authority to and the general intent of the dozen executive orders he issued Monday.

“One of Governor Dunleavy’s priorities is to make state government as efficient and effective as possible,” she wrote. “Several executive orders transfer functions from boards and commissions to the relevant state department, which is in the best interest of efficient administration.”

As for taking sole authority of appointing the public members of the AMH operations board, “the governor’s authority over boards and commissions is established in the Article III Section 26 of Alaska’s Constitution,” Bowers wrote.

That section states “when a board or commission is at the head of a principal department or a regulatory or quasi-judicial agency, its members shall be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by a majority of the members of the legislature in joint session, and may be removed as provided by law. They shall be citizens of the United States. The board or commission may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the governor.”

One question is if the state’s ferry system is “a principal department or a regulatory or quasi-judicial agency” on its own accord since it operates under the authority of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Also, it does not appear the ferry system would be considered primarily a regulatory or judicial agency.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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