State cleared in election complaint over Measure 2

APOC says government wasn't telling people how to vote on initiative

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The state's political watchdog agency dismissed a complaint accusing Alaska state officials of trying to unfairly influence the outcome of a ballot measure aimed at curtailing its predator control program.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission dismissed the complaint from the Alaska Wildlife Alliance after hearing testimony from both sides. The group, which is supporting Ballot Measure 2, requested APOC look into the state's spending of public funds on materials on predator control provided to the public and inserted into newspapers in recent weeks, just ahead of Tuesday's election.

Gov. Sarah Palin said Thursday that it is part of the state's mission to provide the public with accurate information on important issues affecting the state.

"When both sides of a political debate are making claims about an important public policy issue, our experts must be free to explain these programs to the public," Palin said.

The commission said its ruling was based on the fact that the materials provided by the state never expressly told residents how to vote on the ballot measure.

The commission also found that the materials were educational in nature and not intended to sway the election.

The commission said that while it was concerned about the timing of the brochures, radio advertisements and presentations so close to the election, the state's efforts to educate the public about predator control go back to 2005.

"Further, there is no statute or regulation that prohibits educational activities during an election cycle if those activities do not advocate a position on a ballot measure," the commission said.

If approved, Ballot Measure 2 would prohibit the shooting of wolves and bears either from the air or once a plane has landed, unless the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game finds that a "biological emergency" exists and has adequate scientific proof.

It also would require state employees to do the shooting instead of permitted private citizens.

The Alaska Wildlife Alliance accused state officials of waging war on Ballot Measure 2, which will be decided in Tuesday's primary.

John Toppenberg, director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said the decision makes it impossible to challenge the state when issuing biased information regarding a ballot measure as long as it avoids telling residents to vote yes or no.

Joel Bennett, a former game board member and co-sponsor of the ballot measure, said the ruling gives the state an unfair advantage.

"This really guts the law that prohibits the state from using public money on ballot measures," he said.

At issue was a $400,000 appropriation approved by the Legislature to conduct an educational program about the benefits of predator control. About $150,000 of the funds has been spent so far.

Doug Larsen, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, testified that a 30-page report on predator control was created and from that a booklet was printed in 2007. The department also published a brochure that did not mention aerial hunting or the ballot measure.

Larsen said he was cautioned by the Department of Law not to "cross the line" and try to influence Ballot Measure 2.

He testified that he decided to distribute the brochure to the public and run radio advertisements before the election as part of the ongoing educational campaign. The brochure was inserted into newspapers throughout the state this month.

Ron Somerville, a former game board chairman, also was hired to make presentations to various groups about predator control. He said he never took a position on the ballot measure.

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