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No room in Alaska's $12 billion budget for employee ballcap?

Rick Sinnott
Rick Sinnott photo

Things aren't the same at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since I retired in 2010. If the department were an automobile, it would be time for a major overhaul. Clearly, employee morale is among the things needing an upgrade.

Fish and Game employees once had the highest morale of any state or federal agency in Alaska, some believed. Biologists were granted a lot of independence and trusted to make the right decisions. But over the past decade or so, there's been a growing tendency to stamp out independence and dictate top-down decisions with little or no input from local experts.

State employees have rolled with the punches. In fact, a growing number are new enough that they don't remember Alaska's golden age of fish and wildlife management. They've accepted low pay, reduced benefits and pervasive political tinkering because there are relatively few openings for fisheries and wildlife biologists, and most are in federal and state government. But that doesn't mean that they aren't grumbling.

Professionals don't like to be treated like Wal-Mart associates.

A tale of two hats

In the worst of times, in the age of foolishness, the epoch of incredulity, the winter of despair, it's the little things that bridge the gap between job satisfaction and discontent. Little things like a baseball cap that fits.

Fish and Game employees don't wear uniforms like federal biologists or state biologists in many other states. The closest thing to a uniform for a fisheries or wildlife biologist in Alaska is a baseball cap, usually blue, with a Fish and Game logo. New employees generally receive an official cap their first week on the job.

More than 10 years ago I bought my new assistant, Jessy Coltrane, an official cap. At the time someone in headquarters was allowing employees to order caps that weren't regulation blue. Coltrane -- always a little different and proud of it -- chose a peach-colored cap.

After I retired, Coltrane took over as the Anchorage-area wildlife biologist. Now she represents the state on a daily basis, attending meetings, talking to the public, and being interviewed by news media. She also wears her official cap in the field where it gets a lot of wear and tear.

When I worked for Fish and Game, replacing a worn cap was not particularly difficult. As the old one began to tire out, usually after a couple of years, you ordered a fresh one. Times have changed. Now a sole private contractor provides official caps. The caps are adjustable but still too roomy for a small adult. Coltrane says she tried pulling the adjustable band on a new cap to its lowest notch; however, the only things keeping the hat from covering her eyes were her ears.

Grinding cogs of bureaucracy 

Consequently, Coltrane is still wearing the cap I gave her a decade ago. Faded by sunlight and occasional washings its once piquant hue has come to resemble the rind of a ripe cantaloupe. Seams are disintegrating and threads are unraveling like the hem on a cheap pair of polyester pants.

According to the new policy, a Fish and Game employee can't buy just any cap and have the department logo stitched on. It's possible to get an exemption to buy a smaller cap, but the exemption requires written approval from headquarters in Juneau. Confronted with the grinding cogs of bureaucracy, but needing a new cap, Coltrane shrugged and filled out the form.

That was about four months ago.

Government bureaucracy and inefficiency? Meet private-sector incompetence. The business that sews logos on caps hasn't called Coltrane, so she's been calling them. Their excuse on several occasions was that the industrial sewing machine that stitches the logo was "eating the hats."  

By early summer, Coltrane had decided her old cap was no longer fit to wear in public. Thus, in the aftermath of a recent bear mauling in Eagle River, she found herself wearing another baseball cap, a purple one given her by a friend. The cap is sold by Friends of McNeil River, a private, nonprofit organization that supports the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. The wildlife sanctuary, which is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is world famous for its opportunity to view scores of brown bears. Emblazoned on the front of the cap is the question, "Got bears?"

Coltrane said the mauling occurred on a Sunday, so she wasn't in the office but responded promptly to the Anchorage Police Department's request for assistance. She realized at the time that the "Got bears?" cap was an unfortunate choice of haberdashery under the circumstances. Particularly when Bill Roth, a photographer for the Anchorage Daily News, started snapping photos. She doffed the cap before the on-scene television interview.

Peasants demoralized by aristocrats

Most people think of government employees as an amorphous mass but, like a monarchy, our representative governments have a head of state, a ruling class, a bourgeoisie (better known as middle managers), and a large body of peasants. The strict hierarchy reminds me of the Charles Dickens novel, "A Tale of Two Cities."

I don't enjoy reading Dickens, and I've never finished "A Tale of Two Cities," but I know it's about the plight of peasants demoralized by the aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

Our elected officials and their political appointees -- the aristocrats, if you subscribe to my analogy -- are the ones with their fingers entwined in the purse strings. A lower-level employee must get permission from a director or commissioner to travel outside Alaska on official business, to attend a conference, for example. You don't see many rank-and-file state employees getting away with expensive boondoggles.

But a state senator can rack up $42,595 in annual expenses traveling to petroleum-related events, including a week-long trip to London. And the Alaska Legislature shuts down every spring because so many legislators travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual conference hosted by the Energy Council.  

Their 2011 spring break cost the state more than $71,000 in travel expenses. The Energy Council is an organization of 11 energy-producing states, five Canadian provinces, and Venezuela. Their annual conference in Washington, D.C., is supposedly focused on federal energy issues. The Energy Council’s four-member, Dallas-based office also sponsored a fall 2011 conference in Anchorage that cost the state about $93,000 for travel expenses, conference fees, and hosting out-of-state representatives. These conferences are primarily an excuse for lawmakers to be wined and dined by well-heeled lobbyists.

Out-of-state travel is the proverbial tip of the iceberg for discretionary spending among the state government's aristocracy. This year's state budget is more than $12 billion. Nevertheless, the government's lower classes are forced to stand in the bureaucratic equivalent of a bread line to replace a bedraggled uniform cap.

No. 1 threat to America

Typically, Coltrane hasn't complained about her existential dilemma; instead, she's bemused by it. In fact, she asked me not to make a big deal about it. But she still needs a cap.

I can hear the counterargument now. If one state employee with a small head gets an official hat that fits, all state employees with small heads will want one. That may be, but she still needs a cap.

Fortunately, I've found just the hat for Coltrane, one that should mollify anyone who might feel a bit queasy about a state wildlife official wearing a "Got bears?" cap to a mauling. Cafe Press sells a baseball cap in her size that puts the emphasis back where it belongs -- BEARS: THE #1 THREAT TO AMERICA.

Unfortunately, the cap only comes in khaki or white, neither of which is a color that Coltrane is likely to favor.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com