Preliminary election results show Skagway voters rejected a 35-year multi-million dollar contract that would lease portions of the town’s tidelands to a private company. But even though voters rejected the lease, they elected a mayor and assembly member who are supporters of it.
At 8 o’clock Tuesday night, election officials starting counting votes in one of the most contentious and some say important election in recent years.
Skagway representatives began negotiating the new tidelands lease with the parent company of White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in order to access tidelands for what they call the Gateway Project. The Gateway Project is an effort to clean up contamination in Skagway’s port and to expand facilities to welcome larger cruise ships and they hope, other commerce.
The railroad has leased city tidelands for 40-plus years. The proposed lease would have extended that relationship another 35 years, but with different terms.
“The issue on the ballot will effect Skagway for a long time,” said Skagway election board president Barb Brodersen. “Most of us voting will stay in Skagway. So we’re coming out in bunches!”
Brodersen was there as 416 residents cast their votes. When you add that to about 140 absentee ballots, it’s an especially high turnout in the community of about 1,000 people.
“It feels like the community feels it’s important,” said Borough Clerk Emily Deach. “There’s just been a lot of talk about it. It just shows that people really care about this election.”
Outside city hall, I heard divided opinions from Skagway voters. One woman said the lease issue had grown so contentious that she almost didn’t vote. And when she did cast her ballot, she explained that she felt so conflicted about it, she probably wouldn’t tell anyone how she voted.
But some residents were willing to share.
“I think that it was a good deal,” said resident Mike Konsler, who voted for the lease. “I know the people that were negotiating and I feel like they had the good of the town in mind.”
“I voted against it,” said Erik Emery. “It’s important for that particular document to be different. I think dock control…that is an extremely important stream of revenue for this community. To give it to a company that’s not even Alaskan company I think it maybe a little bit wrongheaded.”
Turns out, the majority of voters fell on Emery’s side of the argument. In a vote of 278 to 136, Skagway residents told their government that they were not happy with the proposed lease.
“This is what we needed to find out from the community,” said Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer.
Even though initial results show voters rejecting the lease, those same voters elected back into office representatives who support the contract. Schaefer is one of them. He garnered 258 votes and his challenger Roger Griffin, a vocal opponent of the lease, received 140 votes.
“I’m just really happy to hear about the results of the lease,” Griffin said. “I can’t tell you I think that’s just superb and I think it’s superb that it was by such a wide margin.”
Griffin said he was disappointed not to be elected mayor, but he has faith Schaefer will do a good job.
Voters also overwhelmingly elected another lease advocate, Steve Burnham Jr., to serve a second term on the borough assembly. He garnered 264 votes. Burnham says he’s flattered to be re-elected. As far as the lease vote goes…
“It’s really important for us to look at those responses and votes and try to analyze where we got off the rails,” Burnham said. He was on the borough negotiating team for the lease. He thinks one of the assembly’s shortcomings in the process was communication. “The lease explanation side was not done nearly as well as we hoped.”
Burnham has a big enough lead that it’s likely he’ll retain one of the two open borough assembly seats. As for the second one, it’s a close contest between Jay Burnham and write-in candidate David Brena. Jay Burnham received 186 votes, and Brena received 148. There are 100-plus absentee ballots that will not be counted until Thursday, so Burnham and Brena are left waiting until then. Burnham has said he supports the lease, but after the overwhelming rejection from the voters…
“Well, the tidelands vote, I was surprised at the numbers of that,” Jay Burnham said. “That definitely say that it’s got to be looked into again.”
“I hope that they take it heart that the current assembly has not been in step with the citizens of Skagway,” Brena said.
He says, if he does end up getting on the assembly, the first thing he would want to see done is an economic analysis of the various options around ownership and control of the tidelands.
“The fact that the city has not done economic analysis on the various scenarios is very disturbing and naïve on their part,” Brena said.
The one other write-in candidate for assembly is Mavis Irene Henricksen. She gained 64 votes in the preliminary results.
“I don’t plan on going away,” she said. “I intend to work harder on getting to people to realize that we have to broaden our economy.”
Election results will be finalized on Thursday afternoon. They are set to certified by the borough assembly at 5:30 p.m. meeting. The assembly has also talked about contracting with a third party organization to conduct a post-election survey of voters. The survey would ask why residents they voted the way they did on the lease question.
Then, the assembly will have direction from the public on what to do next.
KHNS will continue to report on election results and citizens’ reactions to the lease vote in coming weeks.