A Memorandum of Understanding between the Municipality of Skagway and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is moving forward. The assembly advanced the document at a special meeting Thursday, just over a week after a mayoral veto put on the brakes.
Last month, the assembly spent several meetings reviewing a draft MOU with the railroad. The document would make way for a new, 15-year, tidelands lease with the private company and port improvements needed to accommodate larger cruise ships in coming years.
It also lays out conditions for the White Pass cleanup and remediation of the ore basin.
On Nov. 21, the group voted unanimously to approve the draft MOU, advancing it to a negotiating committee.
But the next day, Mayor Monica Carlson vetoed that action. At a special meeting Nov. 30, Carlson explained her veto. She said it came down to two things. First, information she recently received about the future of the Alaska Industrial Development Export Authority’s involvement on the waterfront.
AIDEA purchased the Skagway Ore Terminal nearly three decades ago. It subleases property from the city, through White Pass. Carlson says she recently met with AIDEA representatives, and learned the company isn’t planning to extend its lease past 2023.
“When I brought it up at the last meeting the only response that I heard was that’s between the lessee and their sub-lessee and they have an agreement,” said Carlson. “Not a word otherwise. But the reaction of the table it was of no concern. [If] the citizens of Skagway approve the lease, we would assume the AIDEA lease, its terminal and ship loader.”
Her concern was whether the municipality could assume responsibility for ore terminal cleanup if AIDEA leaves.
A description of the Skagway Ore Terminal project on AIDEA’s website says the lease expires in 2023 and it will not be renewed. A representative from AIDEA recently told KHNS, the future of the lease is unclear, and things could change in the future.
“I had no idea the negotiation committee had scheduled a Monday meeting with White Pass,” said Carlson, about her second reason for veto. “I was taken aback that I was not notified or told of the scheduled meeting. Had I known, I would have gone forward and scheduled an executive session and we would not be here tonight.”
Some assembly members pushed back on this reasoning. Orion Hanson is on the negotiating committee. He said he thought he was clear about scheduling the meeting Carlson is referring to.
“I mean, I’m just going to be honest with you, I think this is a delay tactic,” said Hanson. “And I don’t know why. Because I really think, in the spirit of what we’re trying to do, you essentially just stalled negotiations.”
Steve Burnham Jr. said the assembly is familiar with the situation around AIDEA’s lease, and doesn’t feel it has been ignored.
“I don’t feel like we didn’t care or didn’t know or were uninformed, I feel like we were,” said Burnham. “And had every possibility and chance to be.”
Dan Henry pointed out that the MOU is not legally binding.
“You have absolutely nothing but conversation until the assembly approves a legal crafted lease from the city attorney, which is then a final product,” said Henry. “And then, that has to go to the voters. To at any time deter any discussions on this matter, I think is a misstep.”
Tim Cochran is also on the negotiating committee with White Pass.
“I would like to be optimistic about this memorandum of understanding going forward,” said Cochran. “We are light-years beyond the 2015 MOU and lease. We’ve got a lot of protective language in there. Way over and beyond what we had before. I’d like to see White Pass agree to that stuff and go forward.”
Dave Brena and Jay Burnham were more understanding of the mayor’s veto. Brena said focusing attention on the AIDEA sublease was a good idea.
“There were valid reasons to veto the progress of the MOU at least in a way that it would focus attention on an issue that seemed to be kind of skipped over to some degree,” said Brena. “And that is what exactly does happen to AIDEA in 2023.”
Jay Burnham said he didn’t have an opinion on whether the action was right or wrong.
“I do think that you had concerns about whether we fully understood the ramifications of the AIDEA lease,” said Burnham. “Aside from taking each one of us aside and talking to us, I can totally see why you’d want to get us all on the same page and have an executive session.”
The assembly met in executive session with the borough’s attorney to address potential legal issues related to the White Pass lease and subleases, before voting unanimously to overturn the mayor’s veto, moving the MOU forward.