Haines voters have six candidates to choose from for two open seats on the borough assembly. The candidates gathered for a KHNS forum this week.
One thing that connects the five non-incumbent candidates is a sense of dissatisfaction with the way the current assembly operates.
“If we spend the money we need to use it and follow through,” said Judy Erekson.
Erekson is a bookkeeper at the school. Not surprisingly, her campaign is centered on better budgetary decisions. She says the assembly’s actions to spend money on things like a helicopter noise study have irked her.
Borough spending is an issue for Leonard Dubber as well.
“If I’m elected, I will look at every dollar as if it’s my own,” Dubber said. “I’m pretty frugal with my own.”
But the Laundromat owner’s main goal is to shrink local government and uphold public accountability.
“It’s easy when you get in power and want to get something and somebody’s in your way, to walk over them,” Dubber said. “Well, I don’t think that’s right.”
One of Tom Morphet’s major priorities is to make Haines a better place to live year-round.
“I think our community slogan is like ‘Jungle Gym of the North’ or something, ‘Adventure Capital of the Arctic’ or something. Let’s provide that for our locals,” Morphet said. “If Haines had the energy it has in July in January, would there be any problems here?”
The newspaper publisher’s proposal is to fund year-round recreation programs by cutting the police department to three officers.
“We’re over-policed,” Morphet said. “You know, we’re no longer a brawling mill town. We’re mostly artists and retirees. They don’t pose that much of a threat. What’s our biggest crime, breaking into the library? If we had real criminals in this town they’d be breaking into the bank.”
But assembly incumbent Diana Lapham says the limited number of Haines officers leads to burnout and turnover.
The candidates were asked about the turnover that’s plagued the borough’s two top jobs: manager and police chief.
“It’s not because Haines is eating the managers,” Lapham said. “Every one of the manager have left for a reason. Not because any of the public have driven them out of Haines.”
Heather Lende said the manager issue is one of the reasons she decided to run.
“The assembly now has twice hired managers and we’re a manager form of government that have no municipal experience,” Lende said.
Haines’ most recent manager hire was Bill Seward, a retired Coast Guard veteran. Seward started the job this summer. Before him, former Marine David Sosa was manager for about a year and a half.
Lende says the assembly needs to be more thoughtful in its manager hiring decisions.
“I think we could maybe do better if we looked closer to home for the candidates or the expertise in hiring someone to fit Haines,” Lende said. “Because we’re a kind of community that requires a certain Haines expertise. Not just a professional expertise.”
Erekson says she’s had experience working with lots of different bosses in a short period of time. Haines School has had three superintendents in three years.
“You kind of have to find their strengths and try to build on those,” Erekson said. “And hopefully convince them not to come to town and try to save us from ourselves.”
Ryan Cook agreed. The commercial fishermen pointed to manager Seward’s attempt to pause the small boat harbor expansion project within about a month of starting the job.
“As soon as he walked into town he wanted to stop the harbor,” Cook said. “He wasn’t even here a week, he didn’t even know what Haines was about.”
Cook sees the harbor expansion as crucial to improving Haines’ future.
“I think everybody in the community just needs to get together and look at the whole waterfront and see how much it’s actually used,” Cook said.
When asked how the controversy over the project could be placated, Cook pointed to Public Facilities Director Brad Ryan’s efforts to gather public input on phase two of the project. Phase two will deal with uplands development.
“We’re not gonna get what we want all in the first phase,” he said. “I think Petersburg sat for five years before they found funding for the floats. The uplands is where everybody wants to make it look good anyway.”
Lapham is also a proponent of the harbor project. She admitted the process for phase one may have been lacking.
“Phase one was probably done with all of the right intentions but done wrong,” she said. “Our code was very vague. It was a number of problems all dovetailing together.
But Lapham encouraged people to give feedback on phase two.
“The harbor in phase two needs your input, all of your input. I really think we’re gonna have a successful, a beautiful harbor front.”
The about $20 million first phase of the project includes a steel wave barrier, dredging and creating the expanded parking lot. Manager Seward recently delayed the bid deadline from September to October. So, the two newly-elected assembly members will have a say in bid selection.
Lende objected to Lapham and Cook referring public input to phase two.
“I guess it’s disturbing to me that now the borough leadership, or that Diana, now we’re saying ‘oh everybody can talk about phase two and the uplands and where you want to plant trees,'” Lende said. “I think that’s a distraction from a bigger issue, which is the price tag.”
Lende, Erekson, Dubber and Morphet all say the assembly should involve the public more in the estimated $37 million project.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late to ask the voters what they think,” Morphet said. “And I don’t think any honest person is afraid of a vote.”
Morphet proposes an advisory vote to get a pulse on what the community thinks about major components of the project, and that the borough should use that input going forward.
Candidates were also asked about whether they support an expanded cruise ship industry in Haines and if they agree with the assembly’s decision to reduce docking fees as a strategy to lure more traffic to the town’s port. Most of the candidates were dubious of the moorage waivers.
“They’re an industry and they should have to pay their way like we all have to do in our own business,” Dubber said. “The city doesn’t come by and say ‘oh Leonard, we want to help you to not pay your sales tax this year.'”
Erekson said the few thousand dollars cruise lines are saving on moorage fees could go a lot further in Haines’ pocket.
“Fourteen thousand dollars is a lot more to Haines than it is to Royal Caribbean or Holland America. It’s like a blip, that’s like nothing,” Erekson said. “It’s even kind of offensive that they would take it as far as I’m concerned.”
All of the candidates support more cruise ships coming to town – but not too many. Morphet said he didn’t want Haines to become a ‘gift shop ghetto’ like some other Southeast cruise ports. That was one thing all the candidates could agree on.