At both of its meetings last month, members of the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board expressed frustration over the state Department of Transportation's communication with the board on significant decisions, including the state ferry system's summer sailing schedule, job vacancies, and short- and long-term planning.
In phone interviews this week with the Daily News, several members elaborated on those concerns, feeling that the department occasionally struggles to meet one of its only obligations to the board listed in state statute: that "the department shall provide information requested by the board in a timely and responsive manner."
Members also expressed that those communication difficulties are making it difficult for the board to do its job: making recommendations about the management of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The Alaska Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment on this story by press time Friday.
The board
AMHOB was established by House Bill 63 in 2021, replacing the Marine Transportation Advisory Board.
The nine-member board consists of the deputy commissioner of DOT assigned to the marine highway system (specified because DOT has two deputy commissioners), and eight members: a representative of a recognized union representing AMHS employees, appointed by the governor; a representative of an Alaska Native organization or tribe who is from a community served by the marine highway, appointed by the governor; and six public members, appointed by the governor, by the speaker of the Alaska House, and by the Alaska Senate President.
As established in statute, under its advisory responsibility, AMHOB "shall provide advice and recommendation to the commissioner of transportation and public facilities concerning the operation and management of the Alaska Marine Highway System, including advice and recommendations regarding business to enhance revenue and reduce costs; personnel management; commercial service options; ship maintenance, construction and repair; fleet strategy, reliability and regulatory compliance; and other service objectives."
Additionally, state statute explains that "the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, in consultation with the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board, shall prepare a short-term plan and a comprehensive long-range plan for the development and improvement of the Alaska marine highway system."
A common thread
Among the five board members who spoke with the Daily News this week, all said that the state has been inconsistent in providing important information and documents to board members ahead of its meetings.
"Sometimes, information that shows up would be (the day of) the meeting, and (it) makes it almost impossible to be prepared to discuss it," said Board Member Alan Austerman on Thursday. "That type of a breakdown has been (there) since we started." (Austerman was one of the public members appointed to the board by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year.)
As an example, for the board's most recent meeting on Feb. 24, the state sent out supporting materials two days prior, on Feb. 22. The seven documents included in that meeting packet totaled 236 pages. The biggest documents were a 90-page AMHS Fleet Maintenance Evaluation prepared by The Maritime Group (International) Limited on behalf of Elliott Bay Design Group; a 60-page report on AMHS's Operational Resiliency and Efficiency by the same group; and a short-range plan for the marine highway for the 2023 calendar year,totaling 47 pages.
Those first two documents are part of a comprehensive evaluation of the marine highway for which the state put out a request for proposals last April. Board Chair Shirley Marquardt expressed exasperation at the state's lack of communication on that undertaking in her email correspondence with the Daily News. (Marquardt was appointed to the board last year by then-House Speaker Louise Stutes, the Kodiak Republican who has been a staunch supporter of marine highway funding in recent years.)
"AMHOB was advised that a comprehensive evaluation of the AMHS was to be undertaken by a subcontractor and that we would be kept advised of preliminary findings through the process," Marquardt wrote to the Daily News on Monday. "We have not seen any preliminary findings and were presented with the final document in an email two days before the AMHOB meeting. We had no involvement with the development of the evaluation, the scope of work or the methods used."
Marquardt also noted that the board "was not involved in the development of the draft short-term plan, and have struggled to move forward with discussions regarding that plan without a better understanding of the elements and connections to a long-range plan."
Board Member Keith Hillard, the union representative appointed to the board by Gov. Dunleavy, shared a similar sentiment on Thursday.
"The frustration's been (that) the administration continues to do things, and the board feels that we're not being notified in a timely manner," said Hillard. "And that's not just the last two meetings. You can go back to meetings before that. It's frustrating because ... DOT, AMHS (seem) to make decisions that will affect the long-term and short-term plans that we were supposed to be working on. Cascade Point is one of those. That's a very typical example of them moving forward with something (where) ... the needs haven't been addressed to prove that it's necessary."
Hillard was referring to a DOT proposal to build a new AMHS ferry terminal at Cascade Point just north of Juneau. At AMHOB's Dec. 2 meeting, members of the board, including Hillard, Marquardt and then-Vice Chair Wanetta Ayers, questioned then-deputy-commissioner Rob Carpenter about whether the department had sufficient evidence that the proposed terminal would make economic sense. Carpenter told the board that the state had not committed to move forward on the proposal.
Then, last month, the state put out a request for proposal for engineering and design services to determine the cost and feasibility of building the new terminal, with an estimated contract cost of $500,000 to $1 million, without notifying the board of that development.
Board Member Wanetta Ayers, who also was appointed by Rep. Stutes last year, said on Wednesday that she understands the challenge of keeping the board involved in DOT's decisions without slowing the department down.
"DOT has to do what DOT does," Ayers explained on Wednesday. "That's their job, and they can't slow it down to accommodate the board. And, in fact, there are requirements by some of the federal funds that certain plans be in place. And so, there's no criticism of the department for proceeding with that.
"I think that the frustration is that we have a meeting scheduled, things happen during the interim, we don't see the agenda packets until a day or two, maybe, or sometimes within hours of the meeting actually starting, and we can't really be effective board members under those circumstances," she added.
Recently, she said, the state has been doing a better job of publishing materials well in advance of the meeting — though that doesn't mean the state hasn't made mistakes at recent meetings.
"We're starting to get the agenda packets like a week in advance, which is very much appreciated," said Ayers. "But when you have an agenda that's published a week in advance, and then get to a meeting and find out that the most critical issue, at least in my estimation — the recruitment of the (AMHS) general manager — gets pulled from the agenda without any legitimate explanation to us as board members?"
Ayers was referencing recent frustration that she and Marquardt expressed to DOT staff at the Feb. 3 AMHOB meeting after hearing that the state had posted the job opening for a new marine director of AMHS without seeking feedback from the board about changes to the job title, description and salary. ("Marine director" is the new title for the position, formerly known as the "general manager" position.) State officials told the board it would be included in future discussions about the vacancy, tentatively scheduling an executive session for the board's Feb. 24 meeting to discuss the general manager candidates.
But at the start of that Feb. 24 meeting, DOT officials canceled that executive session, because "compensation details" for the position were not final. Several board members were frustrated that DOT officials, including Deputy Commissioner Katherine Keith, would not provide additional detail about the cancellation.
"We clearly asked for, and I believe the commissioner promised us, involvement in that process," Ayers said. "And even if the process had been to go into executive session for them to say, 'Look, we're not ready to share this information with you because we're doing something procedurally,' at least we could have had that conversation."
She added: "I've done a little bit of soul-searching about, can I be an effective board member under these circumstances?"
Board Member Paul Johnsen, who was appointed by then-Senate President Peter Micciche, also acknowledged on Thursday that the state has been inconsistent in giving the board information ahead of its meetings, but said he doesn't think that communication with DOT "is a big issue for us."
"We need more time" to review agenda materials before meetings, he said. "But they're doing better than they were before. Some of the previous meetings, they posted something a half hour before the meeting, and if you weren't there, they start talking about things that you don't even know about. But they're understaffed too, so I don't know. I don't think it's terrible."
Still, he said later on Thursday that without more information about the department's actions, it's difficult for the board to do its job.
"For us to make those recommendations, they kind of have to share with us what they've done so far," said Johnsen. "And that's a little bit missing."
Echoing Ayers, he noted: "There's just so much going on so fast, they can't wait for the board recommendation. They gotta be doing things."
And because the board is composed of volunteers (except for the deputy commissioner), he said it's difficult for the board to meet more frequently to stay on top of new developments.
Still, he thinks DOT has been moving to be more inclusive of the board recently.
"I think in the past, (DOT) had no oversight at all, and they just went ahead and did things," Johnsen said. "In the beginning, that's what they were continually doing. They (would) just go ahead and do things, and tell us about it after it was done. And now — it's like a freight train moving: you're not gonna change it very much — but I think they're bending now and they're including us more than they have in the past. And I don't expect them to change overnight. But I think they're moving in the right direction."
Job search schism
Not everyone on the board felt that overseeing the search process for that marine director vacancy fell within the board's purview. Austerman specifically voiced his disagreement with that line of inquiry on Wednesday.
"Some of the members feel we should be talking about the issues dealing with the management and how they operate. And there are some of us that feel that the management of the operations starts with the commissioner, goes through the deputy commissioner, and then to the department heads within AMHS," said Austerman. "If you go back and listen to the meetings, there was only two people who were really raising those issues. The rest of us are just sitting there waiting for the meeting to continue."
"Having a good information flow between our operational board and the management of the Alaska Marine Highways and DOT ... is a benefit to both sides," he added. "But I'm not gonna tell the governor who to hire. I'm not gonna tell the governor to tell his commissioners who to hire. I'm not gonna get involved in the actual management of the place, other than to make recommendations on what the long- and short-term plan should be."
Other issues
All of the board members that spoke with the Daily News said that they had not heard anything further from the state about when it will release another draft summer sailing schedule for public comment.
Due to staffing shortages, AMHS will not be able to operate the Kennicott this summer, DOT staff explained to the board at the Feb. 24 meeting.
Public comment on the department's first draft summer schedule closed a month ago.
And at that same Feb. 24 meeting, board members said they were surprised by other questions that state officials didn't answer, beyond the topic of the marine director search. Board members had asked staff to estimate how much the state has spent to date on two contracts with Engineering Consulting Services to fill in for two vacant port engineer positions; Deputy Commissioner Katherine Keith said expenses were variable and said she would have to consult with other departments about disclosing those costs.
On another note, Ayers on Wednesday explained that the department's reports and presentations to the board typically haven't given members specific, useful information to incorporate into their recommendations.
"I asked them to change their reporting several meetings ago," she said Wednesday. "Like, I don't want a core dump of information. I want to know what isn't working. And so that's the management by exception model: You need to know that we're responsible for doing this thing, and right now, we don't have the resources to do it, or there's some barrier or something in our way that's preventing us from doing it.
"My hope was that that would focus us on things that the board should be paying attention to," she added. "I don't need to sit in a four-hour infotainment session. There's a lot of operating detail around the Alaska marine highway, and frankly, I don't need to know it. I don't have the skill set to evaluate it."
Up to the department
In order for AMHOB to make recommendations as needed, said Austerman, the state will need to make a better effort to keep it informed.
The board's success "really is going to depend on the DOT and their planners," said Austerman. "We had a presentation at this last meeting giving us information that was totally new to us at that meeting, without any kind of prep on it, on what we were supposed to be talking about. We didn't have an opportunity to get into the weeds with them on what they were really doing, because there was no planning by DOT in the first place to give us any information so we could prepare ourselves.
"So, it's ... a DOT issue right now," he added. "If they can start presenting information to us that would be part of a long-term plan, then things will move forward. If they continue to pop information on us without any prior warning and without any ability to have a discussion on it, then things will just move forward, and we'll just sit there and watch them."