By Greta Mart/KHNS News
Last week’s town hall meeting in Skagway brought out emotional reactions to the pending tidelands lease between Skagway and White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. It was one of two planned informational sessions on the pending lease. About two dozen people attended, and some said elected officials are rushing the lease decision and questioned possible conflicts of interest.
Assembly member Dan Henry and Mayor Mark Schaefer started out the meeting with an explanation of why the municipality sought an early renewal of its lease agreement with the company that owns White Pass. The current lease was signed in 1968 and wasn’t due to expire until 2023.
“To forward the Gateway project, and to do the things that we want to do down on the waterfront, we needed to gain site control. White Pass’s answer or approach to that was well, we have control of the asset, give us a new lease and we’ll give you access, win-win for both of us,” said Henry.
The Gateway project is a plan to renovate and expand Skagway’s port. Henry said that since the talks began in 2009, it was the assembly that dictated the parameters of the agreement.
“Let me make this crystal clear. Every single solitary item that was negotiated was bullet points given to the negotiating team of the city attorney Bob Blasco, Steven Burnham Jr. from an approval of the assembly. Here’s what you have, go that done,” Henry stressed.
Assembly members Burnham and Henry, along with Blasco, made up the municipality’s negotiating team. Burnham, assemblyman Spencer Morgan and Schaefer all work for White Pass.
During the first part of the meeting, Henry outlined each section of the lease, built upon a memorandum of understanding signed by White Pass and the municipality in 2014. The MOU and the complete proposed lease are available on Skagway’s website in the documents section.
Schaefer said the new lease is crucial to the municipality’s port expansion plans and helps protect Skagway in case of an accident.
“It’s a modern, articulate protective lease document that we were lacking…one of the most important things in our minds is it secures indemnification provisions,” said Schaefer.
“We have zero protection right now – zero.”
That was city attorney Bob Blasco speaking by phone. He backed up Schaefer’s and Henry’s points.
So did White Pass President John Finlayson.
“We’ve always had the philosophy of entering into a win-win arrangement. We feel that for us to be successful the city has to be strong and be viable and be successful as well. Pretty much everything they asked for they received – we debated a few item, but for the most part they received that they requested from White Pass,” Finlayson said.
When it was the audience’s turn to speak, the tone of the meeting turned less optimistic.
“I really don’t think we should pass it. I think it’s a win-lose sit situation. Win for White Pass – and if I was in White Pass’s shoes I would definitely, definitely want this to happen. But as a citizen of Skagway, I think we’re getting screwed,” said resident Buckwheat Donahue.
“I’m not saying that White Pass is trying to take advantage of us –I’m not saying that Mr. Henry, or Mr. Burnham or Bob Blasco are trying to take advantage of the city, I’m just saying that they haven’t looked out for our best interest,” said Nancy Corrington.
Gayla Hites said, “It was negotiated – nothing personal, gentlemen – it was negotiated by White Pass employees.”
In a 4-2 vote earlier this month, the assembly approved the ordinance that authorizes Skagway to enter into the lease. That vote sent the decision to the public in a special election scheduled for August 25.
Business owner Jan Wrentmore said she thought the special election was scheduled too soon after the publication of the lease. She said the town hall meeting was the first opportunity she had to look at the document.
“It’s a huge mistake to dump this on the community in the middle of summer when we’re so busy and we’ve got so many other things – and it’s not a sexy issue, it’s not a…it’s really an issue that you have to sit down and get your head around…these are concepts that took two or three years at the table to hammer out,” said Wrentmore.
Lease critic and assembly member Gary Hanson proposed pushing back the vote to coincide with the October general election at last Thursday’s assembly meeting. That idea failed in a tie vote. Borough Clerk Emily Deach said it’s still possible for the assembly to reconsider the election date, although there is a time crunch.
Of all the members of the public who spoke at the meeting, no one testified in favor of the lease. Several asked the municipality for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the agreement before asking the public to decide on the 35-year contract. Others said they hoped more residents would start paying attention to the proposed agreement before the day comes to cast a ballot.
The next town hall meeting is tentatively scheduled for August 11th.