March 8, 2012 | Vol 42, No. 10

Assembly OKs GPS spot checks

The Haines Borough Assembly last week approved an ordinance for spot checks of global positioning system data to monitor compliance with helicopter skiing regulations.

Assemblymen Daymond Hoffman and Norm Smith were opposed in the 4-2 vote.

As introduced in January, the ordinance would have required regular reporting of GPS data, but kept it confidential unless required in an investigation or court proceeding. The amended version adopted Feb. 29 requires companies to provide data “when requested by the borough.” These spot checks will be public information.

“All we’re concerned about in our code is how the government is going to enforce its requirements that the heli-ski industry stay within certain bounds,” said assembly member Debra Schnabel. “We do that by telling the heli-ski companies, ‘Any time we want to know where you are, you’re going to tell us.’”

Sean Brownell of Alaska Heliskiing said the GPS monitoring would “probably help with some of the feelings that we’re not landing in places that we’re supposed to land,” and his concern had been about flight data reaching competitors’ hands.

“I’ve spent over a decade in Haines learning this area, close to $5 million in heli-time, developing my skiing program, and to share that with a competitor just seems wrong to me,” Brownell said. “I really feel that giving that information to the general public would harm my company.”

When assembly member Joanne Waterman proposed the amendment leading to spot checks, she said it would ease the industry’s fears while still allowing the borough to ensure enforcement.

Resident Erika Merklin voiced opposition to the amendment, asking for GPS data to be tracked daily instead of spot-checked.

“I can understand not wanting this information to be made available to competitors, but I think that it should be made available to interested parties, and not just when somebody thinks there may be a violation,” Merklin said. “I think there needs to be monitoring to see if violations are occurring.”

Much of the discussion by the assembly, though, centered on whether the ordinance would discourage outside agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, from requesting GPS data.

Assemblyman Steve Vick referred to the wording, “Grounds for requesting this (GPS) information are limited to enforcement of borough-permitted activity.” He said the statement was too broad and was “saying that no one can request this information unless it’s enforcement-related.”

“Any outside agency or person can go ask the heli-ski companies for whatever they want,” Waterman responded. “They aren’t going to be limited by this, because the borough doesn’t own the information, so if Fish and Game wants to go ask Alaska Heliskiing for a week’s worth of GPS data, they have every right to do that.”

The assembly amended the ordinance to specify that “borough requests” for the data are limited to enforcement purposes.

Assemblyman Smith then cited a Feb. 19 memo from Mayor Stephanie Scott that sought an amendment for borough manager Mark Earnest to prepare a monthly report on the compliance of heli-ski companies. Scott said the memo was outdated due to changes in the ordinance.

“This amendment speaks to a situation where the data is going to be delivered to the borough on a regular basis, and assumed that the data would be kept confidential, so this system of reporting doesn’t really match the ordinance that’s before you,” Scott said.

Waterman said the reports should be a matter of policy, not code, for more flexibility.

Later in the meeting, the agenda included a “policy statement for managing heli-skiing compliance reports,” and Waterman suggested the reports be posted on the borough website with historical information, complaints, responses, GPS data and an outline of the process for addressing violations.

“Once it’s on the website, it will be easy to update. The information will be there for people to access, and I think it will really help to fortify the trust that the borough is actively doing its role in its observation of the industry and making sure there is compliance as far as the flight paths and the ski areas,” she said.

The first report from Earnest is due by March 16. No timeline has been set for additional reports.