CBC Ag – The Next Generation
Political analyst David Brooks said recently “The normal incompetent person flails and stammers and is embarrassed about it. But the true genius at incompetence… flails and flounders and is too incompetent to recognize his own incompetence”.
Lately, the Alaska Division of Agriculture Director has been fond of telling people that he’s going to “Make Agriculture Great Again!” He’s also proudly telling anyone who will listen that he has an “in” with the Governor, and “can get things done for Ag”. But if we take a closer look at what is really “getting done” at DoAg, what becomes apparent is that it’s mostly filling the swamp through cronyism, mismanagement, misinformation campaigns, and subversion of the public process.
In the past several months the Director has flown to Juneau countless times to lobby, testify, and attempt to garner support for the flailing, failing Division of Ag. In February, his overview of the agency’s last year of activities http://www.360north.org/gavel/video/?clientID=2147483647&eventID=2017021121 made it sound as if great things are being accomplished at the Division. Problem is, many of the programs, activities, and responsibilities that he reported are either NOT being done by the DoAg, or were tallies of activities conducted in years past, conveniently dusted off and recycled in an attempt to convince the legislative finance committees to give them more funding and continued support.
In that overview, the Director testified that he changed the name of the Ag Marketing section to “Market Access and Food Safety” for “Very good reasons”. So what exactly ARE those reasons? In spite of his shiny testimony taking credit for all sorts of food safety activities, there have actually been no food safety activities – no inspections, no audits and no workshops done for at least a couple of years, since the food safety staff person left and took the farm food safety program to DEC. In fact, the Division had NO food safety staff or program at all at the time of his testimony, so why the change of name? Well, not so much a reflection of actual work, but he does have aspirations.
The Director took credit in his testimony for FSMA activities, although the FDA FSMA program is not housed at the Division of Ag, and they had no authority, directive, or budget to be working on it during the reporting period. When Reps. Birch and Parrish asked the Director about the Division’s food safety authorities, Director Keyes testified that the only products that DON’T fall under their purview are raw milk, fish, and marijuana. In reality, the DoAg has food safety authority for ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, and the Director knows it. But who really cares if the truth is stretched a little - or a lot - legislators don’t know the difference, and can only make decisions based on the information reported to them (lucky for Ag, huh? ..wink wink).
Other activities they reported for 2016 were inspections and entire programs that were slated to be discontinued by the previous Ag management. This is because there was either no call for them, they were redundant, and/or were a huge waste of state money. The Division nevertheless recently hired not one, but two new staff to replace the food safety/inspection person that left, despite the fact that less than a halftime position’s duties remained, and even those duties were in programs that had been slated to be discontinued. The DoAg will be spending lots more state money to get these new staff trained, certified, and up to speed over the next few years so they can continue with these unnecessary programs. But hey, it serves Ag! Okay, maybe not the Ag industry (or the state budget), but the folks at The Ag Division. The hiring manager even provided false information to the Governor’s office to justify these unnecessary hires, but no one in Administration seems to care.
Fact is, the Ag Director would really LIKE to have authority for farm food safety. He’d like to take over the entire DEC Office of the State Veterinarian too, in spite of the fact that it is an even more ludicrous notion. He’d like it so very much, in fact, that he’s been spending a huge amount of staff time, travel, and of course, state money in trying to sway the governor, the legislature, and the Farm Bureau into giving it to him. Never mind that the tiny Division of Ag has no expertise and no capacity to take them on. So why, exactly, is the tiny Division of Agriculture wanting to expand its scope and take on all the varied and complex responsibilities of the OSV? In a word, they are trying to make The Division relevant. To buy some legitimacy by co-opting it from another agency.
While the state legislature is presented with the image of a Division of Ag that is Doing Great Things! for Ag, the reality is that the Division is mismanaged to the nines and lacks the vision needed to grow or assist industry. If you ask many producers, including some that have had leadership roles in Agriculture groups, they’ll tell you, like several told me, that they’d like to see the current Division of Ag dissolved and the director run out on a rail. Clearly, the Emperor has No Clothes. That’s a pretty damning recommendation from industry members and leaders who are supposed to be able to count on the agency for support.
In fact, draining the swamp through dissolution of The Division of Ag was precisely the recommendation of the last legislative audit of The Division, done in 2003: http://legaudit.akleg.gov/docs/audits/special/dnr/30017rpt-2003.pdf.
The report is scathing in its assessment, and concludes: “Since our last audit, The Division has made very little progress in advancing agriculture. In fact, we found that the lack of innovative leadership is actually hindering the expansion of Alaska agriculture. We also found problems with the management of human resources and physical resources at the division.” The audit team actually concluded that The Division’s resources should be “statutorily restructured” - that is, parsed out to various other agencies, so that Agriculture might actually be served.
In spite of the damning findings, none of the audit issues have been addressed in the 15 years since it was completed. In fact, things at The Division appear to have gotten even worse. A dust storm of pretty serious corruption allegations swirl about the agency and can’t seem to stay under the rug – corruption allegations that involve the meat plant, the BAC, the ARLF’s lending practices, the inspection program’s activities, hiring practices, and reports of Division of Ag staff and cohorts working to put certain producers out of business. Is this really an agency that should be given MORE responsibility, and more authority? Apparently the Director, his managers, and the “Director-in-Waiting” seem to think so, and they’ve been working it hard with the Governor and certain legislators that appear to be in their back pocket. From soirees in Juneau to “Happy Hour in the Greenhouse”, they’re long on sales jobs and shiny photo ops with the Governor, but short on substance and transparency. It doesn’t hurt that the Happy Greenhouse is owned by the Director’s family (and supporter of the Gov’s campaign) and that the Director’s advisor-in-chief is employed as the PR rep for him on the side. It’s all very…cozy.
While trying to garner support for moving farm food safety to the Division of Ag, the Director recently told growers that if the FSMA food safety program was under Division of Ag rather than the Department of Environmental Conservation, it would result in “less regulation”. This is absolutely ridiculous. FSMA is a federal law that mandates food safety requirements at the state level. There is no “flexibility” in application of federal laws, no matter who is enforcing them, unless the agency enforcing them is breaking the law. The Director of Ag has been fighting the implementation of FSMA for years through fear-mongering and misinformation to local growers. His misstatements are either disingenuous, or reveal a lack of basic understanding of how FSMA, and government as a whole, work.
The Division of Ag’s proposed takeover of the State Vet’s duties is even more nonsensical. Yes, in some larger states where there is a DEPARTMENT of Ag, the state vet and food safety functions are housed there. Those Departments of Ag have multiple and varied divisions, huge staff rolls, and a lot of scientific expertise. Those Departments of Ag that have authority for FSMA also happen to have authority for all food safety in their state, something the AK Div of Ag does not have. These other states’ Ag staff are responsible for issuing food safety permits and licenses and for conducting inspections at restaurants and food processing facilities– only DEC has the the authority and expertise for that in the state of Alaska.
The DoAg Director also seems to be confused about the responsibilities of the State Vet. In subsequent testimony to the legislature, he states that if the State Vet were under Ag, the biggest focus of the position would be “education and outreach”, and to “grow industry”. Clearly, he does not understand that the State Veterinarian’s job is the prevention of the introduction and spread of animal diseases in the state. Some of those are zoonotic diseases, such as bird flu, that can be spread to the human population. In fact, both the State Vet and the FSMA Food Safety Programs are about protecting environmental and public health, they are NOT about farming. “Growing industry” by increasing livestock production is a MARKETING function, one that the Division continues to fail at in the opinion of many livestock producers.
Placing the State Veterinarian in the tiny Division of Ag would clearly interfere with the duties he is actually charged with. The State Vet, like the FSMA Food Safety Inspector, is first and foremost a REGULATOR of industry. Putting regulatory staff in the position of promoting the same industries they are supposed to be regulating (and blatantly stating that “less oversight” is expected, as in the case of FSMA”) is not only antithetical to the state and federal laws these positions are charged with upholding, it is a threat to public health. And do livestock producers REALLY want the Vet charged with livestock disease quarantine to be placed under the direction of a Director who not only does not understand his duties, but wants to refocus them? And imagine what might happen with Proposition 90 (Taking sheep/goats off the “clean list”) if suddenly the State Statutes are opened to allow authorities for animal health to be moved to a different agency. Fish and Game could make an end run around the process and wrest control of this authority, effectively ensuring its passage, and the decimation of the sheep/goat industry.
The Director lamented to the legislature that when it comes to Prop 90, the Division of Ag is the “odd man out because they don’t currently have authority for animals”, and it puts the Division in an awkward position. But when asked by Rep. Rauscher for more information on the topic, Director Keyes admitted that he actually doesn’t know much about it. He said that as he understands it, the sheep may carry “some disease” that is transmissible. “Some disease or virus, he’s not sure which. When asked if there have been any cases of this disease in Alaska, or whether past outbreaks of food borne illness associated with raw milk have been eradicated, he answered “I don’t know.” What benefit would it provide, exactly, to move the highly skilled State Vet and food safety positions and staff from the DEC Environmental Health Lab and to the Division of Ag? Division of Ag not only cannot provide the necessary technical expertise and infrastructure to assist these functions, but there is also a clear lack of a basic understanding of the programs’ functions. What would be gained through the Director’s stated plans to reevaluate those duties and authorities for the goal of “promoting” agriculture? It would not only put the livestock industry at risk, but would risk public health as well.
The tactics used by the Division of Ag staff and its supporters to arrive at this end are no less questionable. Management at The Division have been meeting for months behind closed doors with legislators, the Governor, and the Farm Bureau without any input whatsoever from staff at the State Vet’s office. Throwing a bone to the DoAg Director, the edict from the Governor’s office was that the agencies “will make this happen” – never mind legislative procedures and public process, I guess.
Geran Tarr, sponsor of the OSV move and raw milk bills took testimony from interested parties last Monday. Funny thing though, while the Division of Ag Director (and staff, too!) were invited to testify, no one from DEC or OSV was asked for their input. When they requested to testify, they were reluctantly allowed, but were told by the state administration WHAT THEIR TESTIMONY WOULD BE (basically, they were to have “no opinion”). This, in spite of the fact that this bill greatly affects public and environmental health, which is under their authority.
When an agency is failing this badly, the last thing that should be done is to put it in charge of other, legitimate programs. Division of Ag may need some credibility right now, but it’s not going to find it by ignoring the problems at hand and taking on even more responsibility that it’s not prepared to handle. Perhaps this administration should take the advice of the legislative audit team and put the various Ag programs under other Departments where they can be adequately overseen. They suggested moving inspection to DEC, the marketing and loan programs to Commerce, and Ag Land Sales to DNR. That seems like a much more sane, and cost-effective plan, one which maybe should have been implemented 15 years ago, when the audit was completed.
Earth Day was this past weekend, when millions of citizens came out to support science in a time when scientific research, regulatory agencies, and their funding are all being threatened by politics. The crux of the marchers’ message was that public policy must be guided by science, rather than science and research being controlled by political agendas that would restrict information and limit the dissemination of findings that might interfere with commerce. Division of Ag staff, and the legislators who introduced these proposed bills, seem to be working in lockstep with the current administration in Washington by limiting open discussion and public process as a means to an end. Veterinary Science? Pffft! Environmental and Public Health? Ha!… How hard could it be? The important thing to the CBC Ag is that the Division of Ag abides, whatever the cost. And the costs are very high indeed.
When you are working to subvert the public process through backdoor deals, misinformation, and gag orders on program staff, you’re not a public servant, you are part of a cabal. The attempt by DoAg and its cohorts to wrest away authorities, programs, and staff from another agency in an effort to buy legitimacy is nothing less than shameful. When it comes to the public’s health - whether it be zoonotic diseases, food safety, or raw milk legislation - expertise, capability, and infrastructure support matter. These programs, and the professional staff that run them, are not chits to be traded in the Director of Ag’s game of “Ag Monopoly”. Real issues need to be considered. All parties need to be at the table. All information needs to be made available. Because REAL lives and livelihoods are at risk. It is ironic that some of the same people who are first to complain of “federal overreach” are more than happy to engage in public process overreach.
At recent public meetings, many Ag producers are getting wind of these issues, and have questioned the Director’s management plans. He responded by telling them if they don’t agree with him and his agenda, then they obviously “don’t care about agriculture”. In fact, the producers in this state care very deeply about agriculture; it is their life and their livelihood. And they persevere in spite of a state agriculture division that too often appears to be working for itself, and against them, while utilizing underhanded (and apparently non-FOIA’able) tactics.
Mr. Director, Alaskan agriculture producers care about agriculture a great deal. What they DON’T care for is a state-funded agency’s swaggering, self-serving agenda, which appears to focus mainly on keeping staff, programs, and policies in place to serve itself, rather than the Ag producers that it is tasked with assisting. Those producers who would dare to disagree with the status quo are not “enemies of Ag” – quite to the contrary, they are the public who you were hired to serve. It’s way beyond time to bring this agency’s dealings into the light of day.