A group of legislators rushed to the defense Tuesday of Haines scientist Gershon Cohen, whose invitation to join a cruise ship advisory panel was rescinded after an industry lobbyist complained about his appointment.
Six Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter of complaint to the governor that the cruise industry should not be allowed to dictate the panel's membership, calling the corporate pressure "a troubling abuse of power" and asking Gov. Sean Parnell to reverse the decision in the absence of a valid reason for Cohen's removal.
Anchorage Sens. Hollis French and Bill Wielechowski, Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, and Anchorage Reps. Mike Doogan, Les Gara and Berta Gardner signed the letter.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig removed Cohen from the 11-member panel last week, after complaints by the Alaska Cruise Association prompted him to rethink the process, Hartig said.
Cohen was the only applicant for two non-government seats on the panel.
"Do you pick a person because they are the only one or do you beat the bushes and try to get more candidates to consider?" Hartig asked.
Cohen co-wrote the cruise ship initiative approved by voters in 2006 that, in part, places regulations on cruise ship wastewater discharges.
Cruise lines have complained the regulations are too strict.
The initiative also imposed new taxes on the industry, including a marine passenger tax, or head tax, which is being challenged in court by the Alaska Cruise Association.
John Binkley of the Alaska Cruise Association, representing major cruise lines operating in the state, did not respond to calls for comment on this story.
The cruise ship science panel is being created under a law passed last year that granted more time for the industry to comply with environmental regulations. The panel is charged with examining new wastewater technologies and advising the state whether they might work for cruise ships operating in Alaska.
Cohen was appointed to the panel on Dec. 23.
An outspoken water quality advocate for more than a decade, Cohen has a master's degree in biology and a doctorate degree in environmental policy, and works as a project director on water pollution issues for Earth Island Institute.
Hartig said he respected Cohen as an advocate for clean water issues, but there might be a more objective candidate.
"To have him on a science-based panel is a concern when there may be other candidates we can consider ... I don't know if we can get closer to the mark on this objectivity that we're looking for," he said.
Hartig's office issued a press release last week looking for new candidates to fill two remaining slots on the panel.
Nine members have been appointed to the panel, including one from the cruise industry.
Cohen called his removal from the panel "a brazen example" of the belief in big-corporate power.
In their letter to the governor, the legislators outlined similar concerns.
"At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that corporations and special interests can spend unlimited amounts in elections under the guise of the right to 'free speech,' a decision to terminate Dr. Cohen from this panel because he may exercise his First Amendment rights is very troubling," they wrote.
The Supreme Court made the decision on corporate campaign spending last week.
Parnell's staff did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on this story. The panel's first meeting is Feb. 1.
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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