Washington’s public meetings law doesn’t appear to apply to North of Falcon salmon negotiations between state and tribal staffers, according to a presentation prepared for the Fish and Wildlife Commission tomorrow.
That may not go over well with anglers who have been calling for more daylight to be shed on the annual talks divvying up the harvestable surplus of Chinook, coho and other species, especially in light of 2015’s and 2016’s difficulties in reaching a deal, but comes from a review requested from the state Attorney General’s office.
It says that the Open Public Meetings Act requires meetings of governing bodies of state agencies, such as the nine-member citizen panel overseeing WDFW, to be open to the public, but found that under 1992’s Salmon For All court case, it “does not apply to staff negotiations with other entities.”
What’s more, OPMA appears not to apply to discussions with the federal government or tribal nations.
The determination was presaged by a late December letter from WDFW Director Jim Unsworth to Tim Hamilton and the Twin Harbors Fish and Wildlife Advocacy, which had been among the groups that called on the commission to open up North of Falcon.
“Regardless of the setting for negotiations,” Unsworth wrote, “the tribes are sovereign governments and, as such, they need only to meet with or negotiate agreements with the representatives of the government of the state of Washington, in this case the Director of WDFW and the appropriate agency staff. The state cannot impose its authority onto the tribes to open the government-to-government negotiations to the public. Unfortunately, this means the general public has no direct access to the negotiations without an invitation by the tribes.”
At one time, sportfishing observers were allowed into the talks, but that ended after — according to a statement provided to KING 5 by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chair Lorraine Loomis — they “publicly mischaracterized tribal and state negotiating positions, further complicating an already challenging process.”
In a response to Unsworth, Hamilton’s THFWA argues, “The Advocacy does not believe the presence of a few observers approved by the Department and tribal comanagement staff rises to the level of transparency required under state law. Neither do we believe it appropriate for the co-managers to require all in attendance to relinquish their constitutional right of free speech as a condition of participation.”
They suggest WDFW reopen US v. Washington, better known as the Boldt Decision, as a way to strengthen the state’s hand in a process that in 2016 did skew in favor of the tribes because of the drawn-out nature of the negotiations and a Bureau of Indian Affairs nexus that allowed some spring tribal Chinook fisheries to proceed while sport seasons were highly dependent on reaching an agreement with the 20 treaty nations.
It’s hard to say how the commission will react to tomorrow’s advice from the AG’s office, but WDFW Deputy Director Joe Stohr says the agency remains committed to sharing with the public what it can about North of Falcon.
That’s included putting out the salmon forecasts as early as possible, holding initial meetings around the state to gather input from anglers, refining that and posting meeting notes online for review.
“We’re always open to new ideas on how we can do even more information sharing and transparency,” adds Stohr.
He says if the commission has more ideas, he’d like to hear them.