Mayor Jan Hill swears in assembly members Tom Morphet and Heather Lende. (Emily Files)

Mayor Jan Hill swears in assembly members Tom Morphet and Heather Lende. (Emily Files)

In a couple weeks, the Haines Borough Assembly will determine whether to hold a special election on the small boat harbor expansion. The election would be an advisory vote, asking the public to voice their support or opposition to the current harbor design. The advisory vote idea was introduced by one of Haines’ brand new assembly members.

Tom Morphet started his first meeting with a bold proposal. The newly-elected assemblyman drafted a resolution to hold a special advisory vote on the controversial harbor expansion.

“I propose this vote because I think it can make things clean, and I think it can make things right,” Morphet said. “And I think it can bring a little justice to this whole process by going back to the people who actually hold the power in this valley, which are the voters.”

The full harbor expansion could cost upwards of $30 million. Morphet reasoned public projects of this scale should go before voters. He said they usually do, in the form of a bond vote to help fund the project. But the harbor upgrade was different. That’s because its first round of funding, a $15 million bond, came from the state. An additional $4.5 million came from a state legislative grant.

“In this project, the funding came first, so that approval of the voters wasn’t needed for us to spend that $19.5 million,” Morphet said.

Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer argued that there has been a public vote on the project. In 2012, the state asked for voters’ approval on a bond proposition, including $15 million for the Haines harbor.

“So in my opinion it’s incorrect to say there hasn’t been a vote,” Friedenauer said. “There was a statewide vote, there was a statewide question on it that passed.”

Talk about Morphet’s proposal seemed to have reached some of the harbor’s strongest supporters: commercial fishermen. They spoke at the start of the meeting about why expanding the harbor is important to them.

“It’s the most inadequate harbor to fish out of in Southeast Alaska,” said Dennis Gudmundson.

“I would just like to see the community appreciate the commercial fishermen more for what we do for the community,” said Chris Olsen.

At other meetings, there’s been just as much public comment against the project in its current design. Joe Parnell gave voice to that concern Tuesday.

“This is the time when we should be tightening our belts and getting ready for the storm that’s coming,” Parnell said. “But instead we’re embarking on the biggest public project ever on IOU. It’s just unbelievable.”

The first phase of the harbor project should be covered by state funding. But the borough has not acquired funding for the other $10 million-plus of the project.

That’s one reason Morphet’s fellow assembly newcomer, Heather Lende, supports his idea for an advisory vote.

“I’m not at all opposed to improving the harbor and I think all of you are right that it needs it,” Lende said. “But I am concerned about the costs and the unknowns.”

Assemblyman Ron Jackson said he likes the idea of asking for public input. But he called the timing of the proposal ‘terrible.’ This week, the borough opened the bids for phase one of the harbor project. The borough needs to choose a bid within 60 days, by about Dec. 25. If the assembly were to vote for a special election, the soonest it could happen would be mid-to-late December.

If the special election were to go forward, it is unclear how it would impact choosing a contractor for phase one of the project.

Morphet said the tricky timing shouldn’t stop the assembly from being a ‘good neighbor’ and holding a vote.

“I feel like to a certain extent, the public has been painted into a corner on this issue,” Morphet said. “And we might have to step on the paint to get out of the corner. We might have to absorb some costs that we don’t want to absorb to do right by the voters.”

Morphet attempted to call for a vote on his resolution at Tuesday’s meeting. But because the resolution wasn’t included on the publically-noticed agenda, that was not allowed. Then, Morphet asked for a special meeting for the assembly to vote on the resolution as soon as possible. But that motion also failed. So, the assembly will consider the special election resolution at its regular meeting Nov. 8.