Hal Cribbs, who will probably be fired as executive secretary by the California Fish and Game Commission next week, is, arguably, the second most powerful fish and game official in the state.
Only Pete Bontadelli, director of the Department of Fish and Game, has more influence on wildlife matters.
The commission, which has scheduled a special hearing at 10 a.m. Monday, reportedly blames Cribbs for ongoing problems with the Legislature. Nine bills are pending that would alter or eliminate the commission's role in managing the state's fish and game resources.
The commission's hearing, at which Cribbs will testify on his own behalf, has triggered another hearing, hastily arranged by Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose), chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m.
Apparently, the purpose of McCorquodale's hearing is to determine the relationship between the commission and the Legislature, as well as the DFG.
Mary Shallenberger, a staff aide to McCorquodale, said: "If he had any confidence that the majority of commissioners had a strong background and a genuine concern for the resource, he would probably be less inclined to get involved. But given that the commission seems to be in such disarray, this is to take a close look at what they are doing.
"We have heard rumors that Cribbs is being used as a scapegoat."
McCorquodale also scheduled a hearing by his committee on a similar subject when the commission tried to fire Cribbs three years ago. He called it off when the Assembly held one that led to no meaningful conclusions.
Cribbs refused the commission's latest unofficial request to resign two weeks ago and, as an executive officer of an appointed commission, is entitled to a public hearing before he can be fired.
The commission wasted no time in scheduling such a hearing, which looms as a speedy trial followed by a quick hanging.
"The announcement is that I'm going to be terminated," said Cribbs, 53, the commission's top full-time staff member since 1979. "This is not a good time in my life. I've done a good job for them."
Cribbs, a wildlife biologist, would be entitled to a Civil Service position with the DFG. Commission President Bob Bryant of Yuba City and commission member Everett McCracken of Carmichael approached Cribbs after the commission's regular meetings at San Luis Obispo May 18. Bryant asked McCracken to do the talking.
"(Bryant) is a very sympathetic man," McCracken said. "All the commissioners had agreed that's what we wanted to do."
However, only two could approach Cribbs without violating the Brown Act, which requires the majority of a state agency to conduct its business in public.
Cribbs said later: "All they told me was, the intent was to improve relationships with the department and the Legislature."
But Cribbs refused to resign, forcing Monday's hearing.
Cribbs is perceived as being left of the commission on environmental issues. One recurring complaint is that he has aligned himself too closely with Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), whose campaign against inshore gill nets has made her an enemy of commercial fishing interests in general and Bontadelli in particular.
Introduction of the nine bills followed a report in January by the Little Hoover Commission--a state watchdog for government agencies--that was severely critical of the structure and performance of the commission and the DFG.
Two commissioners said that legislators had complained to them about Cribbs' interference, leading to an inference that firing Cribbs would turn down the heat.
Edna Maita, senior consultant for the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Resources that helped to draft the bills, said: "Whether (Cribbs) stays or goes is not a bearing on these bills. These bills were put in by leading Republicans and leading Democrats, and they were put in for the purpose of good government. They have nothing to do with personalities."
The bills, none of which could become law before late summer, if then, are far-ranging.
A package of three--Assembly Bills 3158, 3159 and 3160--by Jim Costa (D-Fresno) would transfer the commission's authority to the DFG, which would be renamed the Department of Fish and Wildlife. AB 4039 by David Kelley (R-Hemet) would establish separate nine-member advisory committees for sportfishing-game and nonsportfishing-game species to be consulted by the commission before adopting regulations.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 51, by Robert Campbell (D-Richmond) would specify the qualifications of commission members and have them appointed to represent specific interests.
Senate Bill 2840 by McCorquodale would create a new Fish and Wildlife Commission of 12 members serving four-year terms, instead of the present six, with four each appointed by the governor, the Senate Rules Committee and the speaker of the Assembly, instead of all by the governor--and each would be from a specified interest group.
Only one bill, ACA 52 by Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), would strengthen the commission, prescribing the qualifications of the DFG director and his top two aides and directing that they be appointed by the commission, instead of the governor.
That's the one the commission likes best.
Otherwise, the bills tend to strengthen the DFG at the expense of the commission--at a time when the department is cutting back operations because of a $7.5 million deficit in its $151-million budget for the fiscal year ending July 1.
Taucher, a former commission president, said he didn't blame Cribbs' conduct for the bills and conceded: "We do need some restructuring. We have five regions in the department. We need a commissioner from each region."
Taucher also said the commissioners should have open minds, not preset convictions about hunting or other volatile issues.
Others say Cribbs is the main reason the commission ever got anything done. McCracken said the commissioners, who meet about once a month, have relied heavily on his guidance.
"We have to," said McCracken, a retired oil lobbyist. "We're just a part-time operation. We depend on the staff a great deal."
Cribbs would probably be replaced, at least temporarily, by his top assistant, Ron Pelzman.