Monday, March 16, 2009

Commissioner denies conflicts-of-interest claims

San Diego Union-Tribune

2:00 a.m. March 14, 2009

California Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton says he will not recuse himself from Marine Life Protection Act discussions or votes and rejects claims that he has conflicts of interest.

Responding to criticism, Sutton, of Monterey, said he is working in good faith and has the state's best interests in mind. Sutton was reappointed to the commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday. His appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate. If confirmed, his new term will last four more years.

“Before I went on the commission, I went through a vetting process to determine if there were any issues or any conflicts of interest as defined by the state,” Sutton said. “There weren't any and nothing since then has changed. I have a deep interest in helping the ocean and working with the commission to continue that process.”

The commission is charged with overseeing the process to implement the MLPA, which is designed to protect certain areas off the state's coast where conservation measures – including closures – are deemed necessary.

Last week, an anonymous critic of Sutton presented a 23-page document to the Department of Fish and Game that he said shows Sutton is aligned with the environmental side of a heated debate with pro-fishing groups.

Specifically, Sutton's connection to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation was cited. Sutton, who is corporate officer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which received more than $123 million over three years from the Packard Foundation, said he and the state Attorney General's Office see no conflict of interest. The foundation, through the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, also has supported the MLPA Initiative with more than $18 million as part of its memorandum of understanding with the state. Before working for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Sutton headed the Marine Fisheries Conservation Program for the Packard Foundation for five years.

However, Sutton says he has no problem with his ability to look objectively and make vital decisions regarding the MLPA.

“The Packard Foundation is no different than all of us who believe the MLPA is important to the state of California's ocean resources,” Sutton said. “I'm not representing environmentalists on the commission any more than Dan Richards (an avid hunter and angler on the commission) is representing hunters and fishermen. We're all there to do the best job we can for the state of California's resources and habitats.”

Richards, a Fish and Game commissioner from Upland, was asked if he thought Sutton has a conflict of interest regarding the MLPA.

“Others are going to have to decide that, not me,” Richards said. “On a personal level, I like Mike. We agree on decisions 85 percent of the time. Unfortunately, the 15 percent of the time we don't agree are on some very significant issues. But that's OK. That's the way this process is supposed to work.”

Commercial and recreational fishing groups have latched on to the conflict-of-interest charges and are seeking legal advice on how to proceed.

“I feel fishermen are having a hard enough time getting a fair shake right now, so yes, I'm very concerned about this,” said Buck Everingham, owner of Everingham Bros. Bait Co., in Point Loma. “I'm not an attorney, but I've read the document and it sure does seem like he has a conflict of interest.”

Nevertheless, Sutton said he is confident he and the other commissioners all bring different perspectives and backgrounds that help the process. And, he says, he's committed to the process.

“All of us who serve on the commission have full-time jobs," Sutton said. “We all have day jobs. I go on administrative leave when I go to the commission meetings or do commission business. I haven't seen any need to recuse myself from the MLPA. I've recused myself on matters regarding scientific collecting, but that's it. I'm committed to go into depth on these marine issues.”

Through the MLPA process, some areas off Central California have been closed to commercial or recreational fishing. Other areas along the coast, including San Diego, also are being considered for closure.

The MLPA was passed by the state legislature in 1999, but ran out of funding twice and had to be put on hold. It is now being funded by the state, bond money and the RLFF as part of a public-private partnership.

Any final proposals must be approved by a majority vote of the Fish and Game Commission.

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