Cindy Gustafson not only was president of the state Fish and Game Commission, but she also was considered a swing vote on a five-member panel that faces some critical votes regarding California's resources.
But on Friday, quite suddenly, Gustafson resigned her appointed post after being advised to do so by the state Attorney General's office.
Reached at her home in Tahoe City, Gustafson said her recent promotion to general manager of the Tahoe City Public Utilities District is what forced her to make a choice between public service and her post in the private sector.
“My day job comes ahead of my appointed position,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson said a state statute says there could be incompatibility between her general manager's job and her appointed seat on the Fish and Game Commission. She said that in her four years she had not had to recuse herself on any vote due to a conflict. But the state's general counsel felt she might not be able to be fair on any issues regarding endangered species as it affected her Tahoe City district.
“It's not a conflict of interest, but somewhere along the line, someone holding two positions like this must have done something wrong, and that's the reason for the statue,” said Gustafson, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in June of 2005.
“It's a really hard thing for me to give up, and I'm really sorry I have to do so, but I have to do what the law says,” Gustafson said.
What's interesting about Gustafson's resignation is that for the last four months, it was Michael Sutton of Monterey who most felt was the Fish and Game Commissioner most likely to resign. Sutton has been under constant fire since March by fishing groups who believe he has conflicts of interest. Sutton is being investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission for alleged conflicts of interest stemming from his position with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its ties to the Packard Foundation, which is helping to fund the Marine Life Protection Act. The commission is expected to vote on the North Central Coast section of the MLPA at its Aug. 4-5 meetings.
Sutton announced at last month's commission meeting that he has been cleared by the FPPC to continue to discuss and vote on MLPA matters. He said his clearance was based on a letter his attorney sent to the FPPC asking for an explanation of what he could do while the investigation continues.
An FPPC official said Sutton continues to be investigated for past conflicts of interest and violations of the Fair Political Practices Act.
With Gustafson gone, that leaves the Fish and Game Commission with Sutton, Richard Rogers, Jim Kellogg and Dan Richards.
Regular commission watchers believe this now puts votes on most issues, particularly those where protectionism is being called for, at a 2-2 deadlock.
For instance, Kellogg, with support from Richards, has called for a halt in the Marine Life Protection Act process until the state has proper funding for the implementation of the marine protected area closures.
Sutton and Rogers have been against such a halt to the MLPA.
Gustafson appeared to be the swing vote, but now she's no longer on the panel.
“I feel very blessed that I got to spend four years serving the state,” Gustafson said. “The commission is facing a lot of challenges ahead. I as one of the commissioners who believed that some protection was needed to preserve our ocean. I hope the commission finds a good balance, the right balance of protection and not harming the state's economy. I wish them good luck. They'll need to get through an awful lot of rhetoric.”
It could be weeks, if not months, before the governor appoints another Fish and Game commissioner. Anyone appointed by him would be able to serve for a full year before being confirmed by the state Senate.