Four subcommittee meetings will precede the next Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, as members increasingly talk about hot-button topics such as wolves and cougars in undocumented sessions.
The department announces the meetings and generally lets the public attend. It reserves the right to close them, however. The public meetings law doesn’t apply because only four of nine commissioners attend, according to the attorney general’s office.
Former Fish and Wildlife commissioner Jay Holzmiller, who was on the commission until July, said he favored setting up the subcommittees and sometimes closing them to the public.
“There have to be times you absolutely have to have those candid conversations,” Holzmiller said. “Yes, no decisions were made, but what we came back with to the commission generally was what got done.”
The commission didn’t have any subcommittee meetings in 2017. The fish committee started meeting in early 2018. The commission has added the wolf, wildlife, habitat, “big tent” and executive committees. The commission’s chairman, Larry Carpenter, closed the only meeting of the executive committee.
The wolf committee has met six times this year. Its seventh meeting, set for Oct. 17, was scheduled to be broadcast by TVW, Washington’s public affairs network, but programmers canceled that day. A TVW official said the network wanted to broadcast the meeting because of the public’s interest in wolves, but another event came up and left the network without the resources to cover it.
There are no publicly available audio or written records of the wolf meetings, or the numerous meetings of other subcommittees.
“We can’t see what was discussed, and that is very concerning,” Hunters Heritage Council President Mark Pidgeon said. “I do have a problem with that.”
In response to questions about the commission’s reliance on subcommittees and the lack of public record, Fish and Wildlife issued a statement saying it has gone beyond the “minimum requirements.”
The department said it has invested in live-stream technology, though it did not cite an example of it being used to stream committee meetings.
Letting the public watch or listen to committee meetings would “require further department resources,” according to the statement.
The department did not specify the additional resources it needs. The department records and puts online conference calls of the entire commission, but not for subcommittees.
Holzmiller said he particularly supported a committee on wolves. “The issue wasn’t getting the time and attention it needed at the full commission meetings,” said Holzmiller, who owns cattle near wolves in southeast Washington.
He said he recalled the wolf committee closing one meeting. He said he reasoned that wolf advocates would attend the meetings and their presence would influence some commissioners. “It would give people a little more backbone and spine,” he said.
Private discussions among commissioners could be more frank, Holzmiller said.
“You have to be able to war-game this stuff,” he said. “You’re not playing checkers. You’re playing three-dimensional chess.”
The commission will meet Oct. 18 and 19 in Olympia. The afternoon before, the “big tent” committee will meet. The agenda topics are “strategic planning” and “agenda planning.”
Following that, the fish committee will meet and then the wolf committee. The wolf committee is scheduled to talk about post-recovery planning, the status of packs and “emerging issues.”
The next morning, the wildlife committee will meet. The agenda includes cougars and how the department acquires land. After that, the commission convenes for its regular meeting. By then, commissioners will have met for about five hours in subcommittee meetings.
The unrecorded discussions could be a source of valuable information, Citizens Alliance for Property Rights lobbyist Cindy Alia said.
“If we are not well-informed about all the details they’re discussing, it’s hard to make an intelligent public comment,” she said.