On August 15, Haines voters will check a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box on three ballots. They will decide whether to recall assembly members Heather Lende, Tom Morphet and Tresham Gregg. The three are accused of misconduct in office.
“This town’s always been split on lots of different issues,” said Ryan Cook, one of the leaders of the Haines recall. “But since this assembly has been in, you’ve never seen it so split like this before.”
Cook ran for borough assembly last October, but lost to Tom Morphet and Heather Lende. He says as soon as they were seated, the new assembly didn’t seem to follow the correct public process or listen to the ‘majority’ of residents.
“We’d given them a chance to at least slow down and learn the process of being on the assembly and not have such a personal agenda,” Cook said. “And they didn’t. They still haven’t. They don’t get it.”
That decision, in a way, helped the recall get to this stage. Seward sought legal action against the borough, and in the process gained access to assembly emails. That’s where the recall sponsors got some their evidence.
“It’s hard to find the evidence,” Cook said. “There’s a couple we wanted to run with more but you couldn’t find the hard evidence to really keep the full proof of it. That was the hard part. Then you get the ones with the emails back and forth and you have that proof right there on paper, that’s easier to prove.”
When asked if the recall supporters were essentially trying to find something that stuck enough to qualify, Cook said ‘yes.’
There are two claims that stuck. All three assembly members are accused of violating the Alaska Open Meetings Act. Lende and Morphet are accused of coercing a subordinate for personal or financial benefit.
“They’re not true and they’re really sort of odd,” said Lende.
“That’s just grasping at straws,” Gregg said.
“The recall is bunk,” Morphet said.
All of them say the recall is baseless.
But Haines Borough attorney Brooks Chandler said, essentially, it doesn’t matter if the claims are true or not. That’s up to voters. Chandler said municipal clerks should only judge whether the allegations constitute misconduct in office. If they do, then they qualify as grounds for recall.
One accusation stems from an email from Gregg to Lende. Gregg asks Lende not to support a piece of the Haines harbor project up for assembly approval. He says ‘Tom and Ron and I are against it,’ referring to two other assembly members.
The allegation is that four assembly members had ‘serial meetings’ and violated the open meetings laws.
“I don’t think that one email where we’re asking for support on a particular issue is violating the Open Meetings Act,” Gregg said. “And in the end, actually nobody voted for it except for me. So I don’t know, it seems pretty trivial.”
The other claim is that Morphet and Lende coerced Police Chief Heath Scott for their financial benefit. At the time, Scott was limiting the information in the police blotter. Morphet and Lende voiced their objection to this.
Apparently, the two assembly members’ protests raised concerns for Scott. He emailed the interim borough manager citing code about misuse of an official position. He pointed out Morphet and Lende’s media affiliations. Morphet owned the local paper at the time and Lende writes obituaries for it. The blotter is published in the paper.
Morphet says the idea that he coerced Chief Scott is ‘absurd.’
“Is that coercion? Me saying the public should have a public document?” Morphet asked. “I said that the public should have access to what the police are doing. I don’t think that’s a recallable act.”
Lende also disputes that her statements amounted to coercion.
But she has a bigger concern. She thinks the acrimony of the recall could be detrimental to Haines’ reputation and economy.
“Nobody wants to go to dinner with hosts that are fighting bitterly,” Lende said. “So why would you choose to live in a community where people are just brutal to each other?”
Morphet says he wasn’t surprised by the recall, because it’s not the first Haines has gone through. There was one in 1993 and another in 2011.
“Recalls are part of the contentiousness of this community, they’re a historical part of what we do here,” Morphet said. “But what disappoints me about the recall and what I think hurts about the recall, is that it so erodes the likelihood of great people running for office.”
Cook’s response? The recall shouldn’t scare away candidates who plan to follow the law. He says it’s been difficult, but he’s never doubted that it was the right thing to do.
“It’s been tough for me too,” Cook said. “I’ve lost friends over the recall. Haven’t talked to them in months. But I’ve gained friends too. I got a thank you today for what we’re doing.”
Don Turner Jr., the main sponsor of the recall, has declined repeated requests for an on-tape interview. Other sponsors did not return calls for comment.
If the recall is successful, Haines will be voting for all six assembly seats in October. Two members resigned over the last couple months, leaving temporary appointees in their place. One member whose term is up is not running for re-election. And if Lende, Gregg and Morphet are replaced by appointees, those seats will be up for grabs as well.
Documents referenced in this article:
Emails used as evidence in recall grounds Note: Emails provided to KHNS by Don Turner Jr. Emphasis and redaction was not added by KHNS.