This story has been updated with more background and input from candidates.
Though it wasn’t on the ballot, the future of Skagway’s waterfront played a big role in this year’s municipal election. Two write-in candidates who want the municipality to control the port came out on top in unofficial results. The prevailing candidates could shift the balance of power in waterfront lease negotiations.
When Skagway’s polls closed Tuesday, more than 450 residents had cast ballots in an election that could have big consequences for the future of the city’s port.
Leaving the polls, outgoing assemblyman Spencer Morgan said the lease is on residents’ minds.
“It seems like, from what I hear in the community, that’s how people are voting. And that’s the contentious issue,” Morgan said. “It’s too bad that some of the other issues like housing have kind of taken a backseat to things. But I think that’s the reason people are getting out and voting.”
White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad has managed much of Skagway’s port since the 1960s. That arrangement is poised to continue with a new 15-year lease currently in negotiations.
But now, two residents who oppose a lease extension are set to take office.
“I believe that this election is more of a mandate than a referendum,” said David Brena.
When elections workers finished hand-counting the ballots around midnight, he had garnered 266 votes, far more than any other assembly candidate.
“I think it’s a mandate to be more aggressive on the cleanup of the contamination,” Brena said. “And also that Skagway moving forward wants some autonomy.”
Brena’s victory follows two unsuccessful election bids. In 2015, a 35-year tidelands lease extension with the railroad was also on the ballot. But, it was rejected by voters. At the time, residents elected candidates who supported the lease. This year, the outcome is different.
Brena attributes his popularity in the race to his lease opposition.
Moving forward, cruise industry leaders say bigger ships are coming in the near future. Skagway needs to renovate its port to accommodate them. But Brena says the municipality should take a step back.
“The answer is not to get overly excited about the need to do it,” Brena said. “Because the urgency is being played as a bargaining chip to facilitate the lease extension.”
One of his goals for office is to increase transparency, particularly in regards to the railroad.
“One thing I think that they should do is at some point they need to stop with the memorandum of understanding and actually put a master lease document out that contains the real language and not how it’s going to get put into the new document,” Brena said. “So that people can see it as it should be written.”
In the mayoral race, Monica Carlson is likely to unseat two-time incumbent Mark Schaefer. Carlson earned 245 votes to Schaefer’s 189. Schaefer would need nearly all of the yet-to-be-tallied absentee votes to change the outcome.
Schaefer supports a new lease with White Pass. Carlson, who was appointed to the assembly this spring, is against the contract. But, she says she won’t try to stop it altogether.
“Even though I opposed the lease, I worked on making it the best for the city if they were to approve it,” Carlson said. “We’ll see what the new assembly wants to do, if they want to continue. If they do want to continue with the lease and finalize it, I believe that everyone in this community has a voice and they should be able to express their voice on the lease.”
Carlson says there is a way to move forward without a lease while preparing Skagway’s waterfront for larger ships.
“The solution will be working jointly with White Pass,” Carlson said. “And we can either continue forward and share the floating dock and they can have all the revenue until the lease expires, or we can move in another direction. And that will be up to the assembly.”
White Pass’ current lease expires in 2023.
Though the lease played a big role in the election, Carlson says it isn’t the only issue at stake.
“I didn’t want it to be all about the lease,” Carlson said. “Because the city has budget revenue problems. They’ve got housing issues. And I think that we need to concentrate on those. The lease is just one thing that will move us forward in the future or not.”
Carlson thanks Schaefer for the four years he’s spent in office. Schaefer did not return requests for comment by deadline for this story.
There are still more than 60 absentee ballots left to be counted. Those votes will decide who takes the second open assembly seat. Behind Brena, Dan Henry was the second most popular candidate. But he leads write-in Philip Clark by only seven votes.
Those ballots will be counted, and the results certified, Thursday, Oct. 5.
Carlson, Monica 245
Schaefer, Mark P. 189
Brena, David 266
Clark, Philip 146
Griffin, Roger W. 125
Henry, Dan 153
McCracken, Dewey 67
Cosgrove, Cara 177
Leipold, Chezare D. 74
Rodig, Heather D. 286
Sager, Denise 289
Original story 10/4 1 a.m.:
In unofficial election results, candidates who want Skagway to take control of its waterfront are set to take office in Skagway.
Monica Carlson ran as a write-in candidate, beating out two-time incumbent Mark Schaefer.
Carlson earned 245 votes to Schaefer’s 189.
Carlson opposes a tidelands lease extension with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The company has managed much of Skagway’s port since the 1960s.
Even though the railroad’s waterfront lease wasn’t on the ballot this year, it played a big role in Skagway’s mayor and assembly races. In 2015, voters rejected a lease extension with the railroad.
Schaefer supports a new lease with the company, while Carlson is opposed.
Leaving the polls Tuesday, Skagway resident Jeanne Tyson said the lease issue weighed heavily on her decision to vote for write-in candidates.
“I think one of the biggest issues is definitely our lease with White Pass and the railroad dock,” Tyson said. “I think that is going to bring a lot of people out to vote.”
Carlson was one of five write-in candidates in the Skagway race, an unprecedented number. She’s the only candidate who opposed Schaefer.
Another lease opponent and write-in candidate came out on top in the assembly race. Five candidates ran for two open seats. David Brena ran unsuccessfully for assembly the last two years. But this time, he garnered the most votes, 266.
It is too soon to say who will win the second assembly seat. Dan Henry earned the second most votes, with 153. But there are still at least 64 absentee ballots left to be counted, and Phillip Clark was close behind Henry, with 146 votes. Roger Griffin garnered 125 and Dewey McCracken earned 67 votes.
In the school board race, two-term incumbent Cara Cosgrove was unseated by two political newcomers. Denise Sager earned the most votes, 289. Heather Rodig was close behind, with 286. Cosgrove earned 177 votes. And Chezare Doxey Leipold garnered 74.
Four-hundred-fifty-five residents turned out to vote in person Tuesday. Because of the unprecedented number of write-in candidates, all of the ballots for mayor and assembly had to be tallied by hand. Elections workers completed the count around midnight.
Absentee ballots still need to be counted and official results are set to be certified on Thursday, Oct. 5.