Skagway voters go to the polls tomorrow in a unique election with an unprecedented number of write-in candidates. The big issue, once again, is the future of Skagway’s waterfront. The five assembly candidates running for two seats shared their views on that topic at a forum Friday night.
There are echoes of 2015’s election in this one. Two years ago, voters rejected a tidelands lease extension. It would have given White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad another 35 years of control over key port properties.
Now, the assembly is working on a new agreement. It has a shorter term of 15 years. And the urgency is heightened, because cruise industry leaders say Skagway needs a new dock for bigger ships by 2019.
“Two years ago, Skagway voters rejected the White Pass lease by about a two-to-one margin,” said Roger Griffin. “And like a zombie, it’s returned.”
Griffin is one of the four write-in candidates for assembly. He and David Brena were motivated to run by their opposition to a new White Pass lease.
“White Pass is holding us hostage to the [ore basin contamination] cleanup and to the new dock construction for the purpose of getting a new lease extension,” Brena said. “Once they know that’s not going to happen, a lot of possibilities open up that are positive for us.
Both Brena and Griffin ran unsuccessfully for office in recent years. The other two write-ins, Philip Clark and Dewey McCracken, have not sought election before. Both of them put their names in the running to give voters choices.
Although Clark is not running on a platform of lease opposition, he says the proposed agreement could be improved. He focused on the lease payments, which start at $250,000 a year and increase 3.5 percent annually, and language requiring cleanup of ore basin contamination.
“I think there needs to be more money for the city if a lease were to go ahead,” Clark said.
McCracken says he is in favor of the city’s current arrangement with White Pass continuing into the future.
“I think it’s time to get rid of the mentality that appears to be rising in the community of it’s either us or them, we can’t do it together,” McCracken said.
The only assembly candidate whose name will be on the ballot is Dan Henry. He served in local government for 19 years before being sentenced to year in prison for not paying federal income taxes.
On the topic of the White Pass lease, Henry focused on what he says is misinformation circulated on social media. He said the new agreement may be doomed to fail because of this.
Henry also said his opinion on it didn’t matter, because a new lease would go to voters in the end.
“Until it gets to the voters, it doesn’t matter, it’s conversation,” Henry said. “So we’re all worked up until we have a final product. And that final product only gets presented. That final product doesn’t then pass, it doesn’t become law. It has to be voted on, by you.”
The assembly will decide whether to continue its pursuit of a new lease, and if it does, the details of the contract that goes to voters.
“Just quickly Dan, are you satisfied with the current direction of the MOU? What are your thoughts on that?” Skagway News Editor Dan Fox asked Henry.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Henry said. “I’m one vote.”
Henry was one of the members of the negotiating team that drafted the 2015 lease proposal which was ultimately rejected by voters. At that time, he was strongly in favor of the new agreement.
The need for a cruise ship floating dock is a major driver in the current lease discussion. All of the candidates agreed that it is essential for Skagway’s port to accommodate bigger ships. But Brena said there are other avenues to construct the dock without a long-term lease.
“One thing I think would be very beneficial to do would be to offer to sublease from White Pass the footprint we need to build the dock,” Brena said. “Build it with our own money and run it ourselves.”
Clark said Skagway needs to keep up with the cruise industry since it is the town’s main economy. But he said the city should do more long-term planning to protect residents’ quality of life, including addressing the housing shortage.
“One of the things that really is motivating me is that the city really needs to do more long-term, solid, planning, rather than just what we’re doing with the lease agreement,” Clark said.
The port isn’t every candidate’s main focus. But when Skagway votes Tuesday, the election could affect not just the makeup of the local government, but the future of the waterfront.