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It's Time Ron Somerville Resigned

An apology is not enough for Alaska's State Game Board chairman

Opinion / Anchorage Daily News / November 8, 2006

An apology is not enough for state Game Board chairman

Why is Ron Somerville still on the Alaska Board of Game?

Yes, he has apologized for his offensive comment at the expense of Alaska Natives -- he said it was meant as a joke. But no one is laughing. And joke or not, the insulting comment will forever reinforce the fact that Mr. Somerville is a divisive personality in state game management. No way he can do his job as state Game Board chairman under that cloud.

Mr. Somerville blurted it out at a Game Board meeting last month. After a third Copper River-area Native scheduled to testify before the board failed to appear during the public comment period, the board chairman said: "There must have been a run on free beer or something."

Mr. Somerville made it even worse when he called the next person to testify. He greeted her arrival by wondering aloud why she wasn't missing like the others. "Don't like beer, Donna?" he asked the Copper Center resident, who had come to speak on proposed subsistence hunting regulations.

Alcoholism among Alaska Natives is no joke, and anyone who treats it like it is has no place in government.

If the comment were out of character -- if it were just a botched attempt to "break the tension" during a long board meeting, as Mr. Somerville said -- a sincere apology might be enough.

But Mr. Somerville doesn't seem to fully comprehend why people are offended. His apology was conditional: "If I offended somebody ..." And even at that, he made it sound like the apology wasn't really needed: "I don't think I have to, to be honest with you, but if that's what happened and someone took it wrong ..."

This isn't the first time Mr. Somerville's disrespect toward Natives has been on display. Mr. Somerville is a hard-core advocate for urban sportsmen in Alaska's long-running debate over subsistence hunting and fishing rights. Natives, whose ancestors have inhabited Alaska for centuries, see subsistence as the keystone of their culture and have embraced the rural subsistence priority as a critical protection. Mr. Somerville sees the priority as undeserved special treatment that discriminates against urban hunters.

In 1982, he led a failed ballot measure to repeal the state's rural subsistence priority. He appealed to the same vein of resentment among urban hunters when he ran for governor in 1986, claiming he alone had the courage to bring up "racially sensitive issues others won't touch." Natives were just another "special-interest group," he said. Mr. Somerville also said that letting Natives set up Lower 48-style tribal governments would lead to a "South African style of apartheid."

When critics of his 2003 appointment to the Game Board noted his long record of opposing rural subsistence, Mr. Somerville made himself out to be a victim of racial politics.

Truth is, he is a victim of his own racial insensitivity.

Ron Somerville is a disruptive figure who didn't belong on the Board of Game when Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed him. And now, in thinking that beer and Natives are material for a joke -- and offering a less than full apology -- he has irreversibly compromised his standing to help decide statewide game management policy.

He should resign.

BOTTOM LINE: For his latest comment, and a long history of divisiveness, Mr. Somerville needs to leave the Board of Game.

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