Mayoral Candidate Forum Spotlights Key Issues
Photo and article by Cass Ray
On some of the issues that are most important to DCC, there was little or no difference among the stands taken by the six candidates for mayor of the Denali Borough at their forum on Jan. 30. All six candidates reported favoring the proposed Stampede State Recreation Area (SRA), with Robert Kohlsdorf noting he had changed his opinion in the years since his first vote as a member of the borough assembly was in opposition to the SRA. Providing the most colorful comment during the brief discussion of the SRA at the candidates’ forum, Kohlsdorf recalled that in the wake of that vote against the SRA, he “nearly got lynched.” The other five mayoral hopefuls favoring the SRA were Steve Jones, William “Rusty” Lasell, William Nemec, Tallon Shreeve, and Clay Walker.
Similarly, each of the six candidates expressed at least some interest in the proposed extraction of methane gas in Healy, but also voiced concern about the potential dangers posed by the use of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Until those dangers and other intrusions on the lives of residents are remedied, he is “not really for that [extracting methane gas],” said Lasell. Jones reported he is “not against methane but against the technology they’re using to do it.” The potential effects on property values and quality of life are concerns, noted Walker, “but this type of development may have a place here.” The potential threat to water quality was noted by Nemec. Citing numerous potential environmental concerns, Kohlsdorf counseled “moving slowly.” Assuming the proper safeguards were taken, the extraction of methane gas could prove a good thing for the community, said Shreeve.
Responding to a question about air quality in the borough, the candidates agreed air pollution poses little or no problem in the borough. Noted was the possibility of a woodstove change-out program in the borough, in conjunction with the Consent Decree reached by Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) allowing the re-start of the long-moth-balled Healy Coal Plant II. GVEA contends that change-out program would “help alleviate the particulate matter problems in the Interior.”
February 19 Winner will be Borough’s Fourth Mayor
The mayoral candidates’ forum, nearly two and a half hours long and held three weeks before the February 19 special election, was hosted by the Tri-Valley High School government class at the Community Library in Healy and drew a large crowd. The winner in the special election will serve out the term vacated by the December 12 resignation of Dave Talerico, who now is chief of staff to Doug Isaacson, the North Pole mayor elected to the state legislature last November. Talerico, mayor for ten years, was the third mayor in the 22-year history of the borough. The next election for a full mayoral term will be in November 2014.
In his two-minute opening statement at the candidates’ forum, Jones noted his active involvement in local public affairs dates back to the years before the borough was established. He played a role in the formation of the borough, noted the former member of the local school board with long service on the borough’s Planning Commission. His extensive work with state and federal agencies was cited by the long-time local property developer. Kohlsdorf, a member of the Middle Nenana Fish and Game Advisory Committee and the board of directors of Railbelt Mental Health, served on the borough assembly for several years—and never missed a meeting, he noted. A resident of the borough for 27 years, Lasell has been active in the volunteer fire department for 25 years, served as the borough’s emergency services coordinator, and is a member of the borough assembly.
Nemec, owner of a trucking company in Healy and former member of the borough assembly who has spent most of his life in the borough, devoted a portion of his opening statement to detailing his efforts of more than two decades ago to stop the formation of the borough. A resident of the borough for eight years, Shreeve graduated from Brigham Young University a year ago and has worked as a supervisor for Princess and as a substitute teacher and coach at Tri-Valley School. Citing his combination of experience and new ideas for the borough, Walker, the mayor pro tempore, noted that his seven years on the borough assembly make him the senior continuously serving member. He has driven buses in Denali National Park for more than twenty years.
‘If it’s not Broke…’
A question about whether the borough should enact property or sales taxes revealed little dissension about the six candidates. Kohlsdorf vowed to “never ever” support a property tax, while allowing that a sales tax might be needed some day. Jones said he is “adamantly against a property tax,” while Nemec reported he is “deadly again’ it.” Lasell touted keeping government small, vowing, “If it’s not broke, then I’m not going to fix it.” Kohlsdorf noted he is a “firm believer in minimal government.”
None of the candidates proved an enthusiastic proponent of property zoning, and Walker noted the borough’s Planning Commission has four vacant seats and has not met since October. Cited by Nemec and Walker was the borough’s recent slight decline in population, as reported in the 2010 census, and despite more than one prediction of a veritable explosion in the borough’s population. The candidates said they would support any effort by Healy to obtain city status—Kohlsdorf reported he would encourage Healy to do so–and were unanimous in their support of the borough’s pursuing a technology school or a branch of the University of Alaska. None of the mayoral hopefuls favored establishing a regional high school to serve all three of the borough’s schools. Among concerns cited by individual candidates were rising energy costs (Jones), the need for jobs for the borough’s young adults and families (Lasell), the need for residents presently living on land leased from the Alaska Railroad to own the land beneath their homes (Nemec), and “Cantwell needs a new school” (Kohlsdorf).