Skagway leaders are trying to move forward after a public vote last fall stymied an agreement that would have cleared the way for port renovations. Skagway residents rejected a tidelands lease extension between the municipality and White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. On Thursday, the borough assembly voted to re-engage in lease discussions with White Pass. The few members of the public who spoke up before the vote said this time around, the process needs to be more transparent.
It took years of negotiations and work to produce the lease that was turned down by voters in October. Now, Skagway is running against the clock to make crucial improvements to its port facilities that support the town’s tourism and industrial economies. That includes a floating dock for cruise ships and remediation of contamination in the ore basin.
“Alls I care about at this point is that we have a floating dock come May 1 of next year and don’t lose our position in the marketplace,” said Assemblyman Dan Henry. “We continue to dangerously teeter on a bad calendar choice on a lot of these decisions.”
The assembly held a special meeting earlier this month where they talked in executive session for about an hour. They then proposed a resolution to declare the municipality’s intent to re-engage with White Pass to discuss a lease agreement. That was the resolution before them at Thursday’s meeting. Assembly member Steve Burnham Jr. said, if they do sit down with the railroad again, ‘it has to be different.’
“The last lease ended in a massive failure,” he said. “And I think that the assembly can’t ignore that.”
Burnham said transparency is key. He and Henry were two of the municipality’s representative in negotiations with White Pass. After the public vote, Burnham said he regretted that so many of those discussions happened behind closed doors, in executive session.
Port Commission Chair Tim Bourcy and resident Wayne Selmer echoed that sentiment.
“I think the concern from the port commission side is that we don’t repeat the sins of the past and go down the same rabbit hole,” said Bourcy.
“I hope too, like Tim said, that it’s a little more open and transparent than it was the last go-round,” said Selmer.
But Assemblyman Henry bristled at the transparency concerns. He implied that people don’t understand what executive session means. He said talking behind closed doors is more expedient because you don’t have hundreds of people trying to voice their opinion, and that when a decision is actually made, it’s made in public.
“The transparency is going to create an arena of 300 people in here shouting out ideas,” Henry said. “Well, they voted for you, and you, and you, and you, and me, to watch over the city’s business and take care of things with their input at the appropriate times in the appropriate manner. And if such is a paramount issue as we have here, they will get one-by-one the opportunity to cast a ballot. Everyone’s voice will be heard.”
Assemblyman Tim Cochran wasn’t present at the meeting, and Burnham moved to delay the vote until everyone could be there. But the other assembly members rejected that idea. In the final vote, all five supported the intention to re-engage in lease discussions with the railroad.
At the next meeting on August 4, the assembly plans to hash out details about how to approach this second round of negotiations. Burnham said he hoped to hear from members of the public sooner rather than later.
“Rather than come out with pitchforks and torches at the eleventh hour I want to see them tomorrow,” he said.
The assembly plans to get outside, professional help this time around. They agreed on a request for proposals for a port consultant.
The assembly almost spent more time debating aesthetics of the new municipality website than the lease discussion question. A website design committee asked for the assembly’s input about which motto to use on the homepage: ‘Gateway to the Klondike’ or ‘Garden City of Alaska.’
Instead of just deciding on the website, the assembly passed a motion to make the official motto of Skagway ‘The Gateway to the Klondike.’