Local News

Commissioner sorry for ignoring advisory board

Ferry system General Manager John Falvey looks through paperwork as Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp addresses the Marine Transportation Advisory board Jan. 22, 2013. Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska photo.

Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp has apologized for keeping the Marine Highway Advisory Board out of the loop on the Alaska Class Ferry. He and his staff also released a few more details on the vessel’s proposed replacements.

“I sincerely apologize for not keeping the board involved or not knowing more about the board,” Kemp told the ferry advisory panel during a face-to-face meeting this week in Juneau.

“I wasn’t involved with the board before and, in fact, when this whole thing was going down,” he said. “I wasn’t even commissioner. I was acting commissioner. And I didn’t know the sensitivities of the board. I wasn’t sure how the board operated.”

Kemp used to be deputy commissioner for highways and public facilities. He was named acting transportation commissioner in August, and got the full appointment in December.

He said he came into a leadership structure that isolated managers. And that’s why he didn’t know the rules of the road, or the fact that the Alaska Class Ferry project was headed way over budget.

“I was kind of in head-scratching mode for a while because I really didn’t know what to do. I’ve developed projects for my entire career and I had to just get up to speed with this one,” Kemp said.

He decided the plans should be scrapped before an October advisory board meeting. But he couldn’t bring it up without Governor Sean Parnell’s approval.

That came in December, when the governor announced plans to design two smaller, cheaper shuttle ships.

Most Marine Transportation Advisory Board members criticized Kemp’s handling of the design change.

Angoon’s Maxine Thompson represents Southeast villages on the panel. Said she was blind-sided.

MTAB member Maxine Thompson of Angoon addresses the design-change process.

“I was extremely frustrated because over the years we have worked really hard to develop a communication line. And we were under the impression that our input was appreciated. So reading about it in the paper and responding to the people in the communities, we’re at a loss as to what happened,” she said.

Sitka’s Gerry Hope, who represents central Southeast, agrees.

“We became accustomed to really being plugged into the process and feeling like we had a positive role to play. And then when it was announced in the news … I was really surprised,” he said.

Some members had no complaint with the decision to drop the Alaska Class Ferry design. They were happy to see what they considered an out-of-control project return to its simpler beginnings.

Advisory board Chairman Robert Venables accepted Kemp’s apology.

“I thought that was somewhat unprecedented and very well received. I think the board has had a very warm and close-working relationship with the commissioner’s office and the staff. And I’m glad to see that bridge-mending underway,” Venables said.

Transportation officials told board members a few more details of the shuttle ferry, which will sail Lynn Canal.

They say the shuttle system could create 15 to 25 jobs in Haines. That’s in part because those traveling Juneau-to-Skagway, or the other way around, will need to change ships in Haines.

Recently appointed Deputy Commissioner Reuben Yost said the latest Alaska Class Ferry plans could be used for another ship.

“Basically, we have a preliminary design for a 350-foot Taku replacement that will be on the shelf. In the future, after the Tustumena is replaced, if the next vessel to be replaced is the Taku, we are that much ahead in terms of design,” Yost said.

Kemp said more details of the new shuttle ferry plans will be released soon. He said the advisory board will be involved.

“I’ll have a close relationship with you. I like ferries. I like marine highway stuff. I think it’s a great system and I have the utmost confidence in Capt. Falvey and the utmost confidence in Reuben (Yost). And I think we’re going to be fine,” he said.

Kemp named Yost as one of three deputy transportation commissioners. But he will oversee other agencies and special projects, along with the ferry system.

Several legislators last week said state law requires such hires to go through the advisory board. Kemp said it’s a different job and should not be covered by the legal language.

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