On October 20th local candidates for the Denali Borough Assembly and the Alaska House and Senate came together for a candidate forum at Tri-Valley School in Healy. Students from Tri-Valley’s high school government class hosted the event, as they have for several years. The format of the forum included an initial question and answer session based on questions developed by the students. After both Assembly and State Legislators were questioned, students took a break to select from questions written by audience members.
In this post are the introductions, questions, and responses for candidates for the Denali Borough Assembly. Candidates present included Denali Borough Assembly incumbents, John Winkleman and Theresa Chepoda-Usibelli, both of Healy. Running against Usibelli is David Evans, also of Healy. John Winklmann is in his third year serving the Borough Assembly in Seat C. He has lived in the Borough since 1973, raised children, and owned and operated a medical clinic in Healy. He currently operates a seasonal medical facility in the Canyon (Denali Park entrance area). He stated that he believes the Borough Government should be representative and accountable to Borough citizens, cost effective, and transparent. He feels that he brings an awareness and a willingness to stay active on these issues.
Theresa Chepoda-Usibelli is also in her third year serving the Borough Assembly in Seat D. She has lived in Healy for a number of years, has raised children, and owned several businesses in Healy (including a car rental business, U-Haul agency, and first drive-thru espresso stand in the Borough), and currently owns and manages the Alaskan Chateau Bed and Breakfast. She said that we need to keep tourists coming to this area in order to sustain our economy as is supports a large portion of the Borough’s income (via the bed tax). She expressed concern about South Denali developments and a need to ensure that we continue to draw tourism to this area. She feels that she brings a wide ideology to the Borough Assembly.
David Evans held a seat on the Denali Borough Assembly from 2002-2008. He has lived in the Denali Borough off and on since 1979, and been in the state since 1961. He also has raised kids in the borough, and owns Evans Industries based in Healy. His prior service on the Assembly happened during a time of many hot issues. He introduced the resolution that triggered the state to move to create a Stampede State Recreation area, and was active in developing ordinances that the Borough passed to protect citizens in regards to gas development. He stated that there are still good things that need to be done, and feels that his experiences on the Assembly and as a business owner are strengths he can bring to the Assembly.
Candidates were asked what they thought was the most important goal for the Borough in the next five years. Evans said that the lands program could prove to be an important source of revenue and development for the community. He thinks that it will be important for the Borough to work to get lands out to private citizens. Usibelli also felt that opening up Borough lands was important, and emphasized that tourism could be enhanced by opening and advertising trails for people to explore, and establishing year-round rest stops which could be advertised in local travel magazines (i.e. Milepost). She pointed out that the Borough has only one tax, the bed tax, and unless we want to add other taxes, we need to do whatever we can to keep revenue up in order to fund the schools. Winklmann agreed that land issues were important, and added that he has worked hard for many years to establish multi-use trails in the area to provide safe and enjoyable access in the Borough. He pointed out that education is a major responsibility for the Borough, and should be kept front and center. While he acknowledged that the borough is not responsible for health care, he considers that an important issue as well.
When asked what role the Borough should have at the landfill, all candidates agreed that the landfill is at a good place. Usibelli stated that our landfill is top of the line, while Winklmann noted that the landfill has recovered from the financial scare several years ago. Evans pointed out the need to continually monitor the landfill and our growth, to know when we need to look into landfill expansion.
Candidates also agreed that it was important for students to be involved in the Borough Assembly. Winklmann stated that it would be a great way for the Assembly to stay in touch with the student body, while providing experience to the student. Evans served on the Assembly when there was a student representative, and said that it was a successful program. He suggested that there be a way for student government classes to comment on Assembly business, bringing a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective to the table. Usibelli pointed out that the process of putting your issue on the table, separating issues or problems from people, and finding middle ground where it can be agreed upon is an important procedure for any student to experience. The candidates also agreed that the most important role that the Borough has in education is funding. Usibelli also pointed out that there are already a number of important partnerships the school already has, and they can be developed to provide even more work-force training.
When asked about views on land-use planning there were mixed responses. Evans said that he supported it, and that the Borough should continue to pursue land planning. He noted that there continues to be opposition to zoning, but that land use planning is necessary. Usibelli pointed out that the Borough was zoned general use at this time, and that localized zoning is an option for areas or groups that want to have zoning. She feels that we don’t necessarily always have to have government regulating what we do in our lives, a reason she feels many people live in Alaska. Winklmann stated that planning is mandated in the municipal charter, so is something that has to be considered. He also pointed out that in the past a fairly restrictive zoning ordinance was proposed and shot down quickly, but also noted that planning makes sense to have a semblance of order.
Students asked candidates what forms of economic development they supported, and what area could use increased Borough funding. Evans pointed out that tourism is one of the more sustainable options for development, and suggested that trails and recreation could be enhanced. Winklmann agreed that that we are lacking a borough-wide trail system and, considering the large amount of money made from tourism, it would be a good option to develop. Usibelli pointed out that Healy is lucky to have large employers, such as the National Park Service, Usibelli Coal Mine, and GVEA. She listed several proposed developments (Healy Clean Coal Plant, upgrades at Clear Air Force Base, Eva Creek Wind Farm) and suggested that these current and future employees will need services. She thinks that creating an area for a town center will give a stronger sense of community.
Community members submitted questions about how the Borough will work to minimize air and noise pollution in regards to the Healy Clean Coal Plant. Winklmann agreed that it was an important issue, and that clean air was important. Both he, Usibelli and Evans hoped that the noise problems in the past would be remedied by new technology. Usibelli also pointed out that anything we can do to reduce power rates would be beneficial in making things more affordable in our community.
When asked how the Borough will protect water and property rights in the pending Healy Basin gas license area, candidates discussed past Borough ordinances relating to setbacks, while Winklmann pointed out that the Borough ended up repealing parts of an ordinance restricting gas development when the state threatened legal action. Usibelli suggested that we find ways to work with the different developments that come our way, such as the setbacks that the Borough created.
Members of the community also asked about the proposed Stampede State Recreation Area. Evans, who promoted the idea during his time with the Assembly, strongly supports the idea and says it really needs to move forward. Winklmann agreed that the area should be preserved for traditional uses, and needs to be protected. Usibelli seemed to think that the Assembly should not play a major role in the development of such an area. She pointed out groups such as Friends of Stampede and DCC as avenues to further the cause. She pointed out that State Park funding is low, and wondered where the revenue would come from, and what groups of users the area would serve.