Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fish and Game Commissioner Richards fires back at Resources Secretary Chrisman

By Ed Zieralski

Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Richards has sent a defiant letter to California Natural Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman to remind him that Governor-appointed commissioners like him are free to act independently and without "undo influence from any source."

Richards' missive was a no-nonsense response to Chrisman's letter sent earlier to the Fish and Game Commissioners. Though Chrisman didn't name any names, he clearly was aiming at Commissioners Richards Jim Kellogg, both of whom have called for a halt to the MLPA until the state's budget crisis is over. Chrisman has said numerous times now that the Commissioners don't need to worry about funding the MLPA process. Their job, he repeated often, is to get the planning done and get the marine protected areas in place. He wants them to leave the funding to him and others.

Richards disagrees, and now insiders who follow California's political scene closely say they can't remember a time when a Governor-appointed commissioner such as Richards fired off a letter like this to one of the Governor's top ranking officials such as Chrisman.

"While the Commission members are appointed by the Governor, once appointed, the Commission members are independent, and should be free to exercise our responsibilities without undo influence from any source," Richards said in his letter to Chrisman dated June 22. "Therefore, it is not only fitting but proper that the Commission seek direction from the Legislature as to what priority the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) holds in the current discusion regarding the state budget crisis."

Richards made it clear in his letter that he and Kellogg are within their rights as Commissioners to question the proper funding of the MLPA process.

"The Fish and Game Code contains the MLPA and, among other requirements, in section 2859(b) limits the implementation of these protected areas '... to the extent funds are available,'" Richards said. "Therefore, in accordance with the law, the budget crisis facing California, and in direct contrast to your assertion, the issue of adequate funding is fully and appropriately within the Commission's purview."

Richards stated that California simply can't afford the more than $35 million it will take annually for scientific monitoring and enforcement of the marine protected areas. Richards pointed out that California's Legislative Analyst's Office recommended to the Legislature that the MLPA be suspended. Also, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee "voted unanimously to strip all General Fund support to the Department of Fish and Game for MLPA activities." The Budget Committee did direct the Ocean Protection Council to "backfill" the loss of General Fund money with Proposition 84 funds, but Richards stated that "it is unclear if those funds are even available, which I am sure you know, or if they can be legally used for that purpose."

Richards also is bothered by the fact that the Department of Fish and Game will be impacted even more by the MLPA because the Budget Committee adopted Schwarzenegger's proposal to eliminate an additional $30 million in General Fund money given to the DFG and replace it with $30 million from the license fees from hunters and fishermen.

"This one-time, legally questionable gimmick requires license purchasers (mainly sportsmen and women) to subsidize the Department's general enforcement activities and other programs and irresponsibly exhausts the reserves in these programs," Richards said to Chrisman. "As a former member of the Commission, how in good conscience can you ask that we impose $35 million in unfunded costs on the Department when you do not even have a plan to maintain the existing inadequate levels of funding for the Department beyond next June?"

Richards finished his letter to Chrisman with a plea to the ex-Commissioner and now Resources Secretary to "join with the Commission to help protect the Department of Fish and Game, it's good employees and the current programs and projects they are so gallantly trying to implement and manage under rapidly diminishing resources."

Reached yesterday on the eve of today's Fish and Game Commission meeting, Richards said he will continue to try and get the state to recognize the problems with the funding of the MLPA process and the fact that fishermen see it as an unfair process.

"This is not a fishermen versus environmentalists matter," Richards said. "This is a fiscal matter to me. The process, up until recently, has been pretty fair, open and honest. Recent deals have soured some segments of the public. But for the most part, the process has been pretty fair. But what I'm not going to do is put my head in the sand like many others and ignore the fiscal crisis California is in right now. The Department of Fish and Game already is laying off people, cutting programs. Now they want to layer on another program that isn't funded? How did this get priority over all those other programs? It's inappropriate, plain and simple."

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