Candidates got more time to answer questions than at previous forums, but then they hadn’t faced questions quite like these.
Eleven of the 14 people seeking four seats on the Juneau Assembly spent two hours last Friday night at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall discussing often-familiar issues such as housing and education during the forum hosted by The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Many of the candidates emphasized the key role the tribes are playing in working with the city to provide services such as child and elder care, job training, and business development.
But when audience members got to ask questions with about 30 minutes remaining, Mary Marks, a tribal citizen, made it clear she wasn’t impressed with what she’d heard so far among those seeking her vote in the Oct.3 municipal election.
“You talked about renewable energy, you talked about listening, you talked about government-to-government relationships,” she said. “And to me, our tribe has had an open-door policy where you were able to come in and do more than just listen — there’s opportunities to collaborate and find solutions. So I feel that as a tribal citizen, as a community member, I’m done listening. I want to see some plan of action, I want to hear from you, what you’re going to do different or how you’re going to participate.”
“In this meeting tonight with you, I am not seeing any of that. So how are you going to go beyond listening?”
As if that wasn’t enough for candidates to respond to, other audience members asked questions about homelessness, gaps in school funding due to inflation and using lower-cost energy sources in public buildings. At that point moderator Jacqueline Pata, first vice president of Tlingit and Haida, gave each of the candidates the two minutes allotted for other responses during the evening — about twice as long as forums hosted by others previously — to respond to any or all of the questions as they saw fit.
As was the case for many of the answers by candidates throughout the forum, themes of the Assembly working cooperatively with the tribes and other local groups was a common theme in the responses to one or more of the trio of questions.
Among the candidates trying to answer all three was Areawide hopeful Michele Stuart-Morgan, who started by telling Marks “thank you for shaking me — I’m going to get more involved and do some more research in that. I apologize.” Morgan said she’s been involved in anti-drug efforts and advocated for “tiny houses” to help address homelessness, and was a member of the site council at Gastineau Elementary School where issues they had to deal with included keeping windows open all day due to inefficient energy-use problems.
Laura Martinson McDonnell, another Areawide candidate, said one way to address all three questions raised by audience members is “I would like to see us invest in a long-term solution and that’s taking care of our kids. That’s early childhood development, working on childhood problem. supporting programs like Headstart.” She also observed “government works at the pace of government and I come from the private sector, and I like to move quickly and efficiently. And so I would love to take action on a lot of these issues.”
A similar overlapping response was offered by District 2 challenger David Morris.
“Homelessness basically comes down to being in a state of mind for many people, there’s many reasons to be homeless,” he said. “And at the front end of that what you need to do is start with education, where in Headstart and everything else you can build their self worth, so that when they run into an issue or a problem in their lives they don’t go to the streets and become homeless. They’ll be able to work with it and work with people to help themselves out.”
Some candidates managed to work some of their central campaign themes into their responses. For Areawide hopeful Nathaniel (Nano) Brooks that included reducing regulations to help spur development and making land available cheaply to people.
“We make sure that it benefits everyone in an equal matter, and people aren’t getting left out and that other people aren’t getting any preference,” he said. “And certain areas aren’t getting attention over other areas. This whole community is very large, there’s 30,000 people, and we really all do need to work together if we want to get anything done and make real progress. And that’s something that we have been lacking as of recently.”
Similarly, District 1 challenger Joe Geldhof — participating remotely from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he said he was working on a tribal matter there — used his response time to the audience questions to reiterate his opposition to the Assembly again putting a new City Hall bond measure on the ballot.
“There’s a lot of talk amongst the mayor and some of the current members of the Assembly about childcare,” he said. “They talk about education. They talked about homelessness, they talked about the need to take action. But they’re spending their money on a new City Hall. That shows where the priorities really are.”
The District 1 incumbent, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, said she’s supported efforts to boost education funding and programs offering help for people experiencing homelessness, but acknowledged Assembly members ought to be working more closely with tribal entities.
“We need to come to you and I agree we haven’t done enough,” she said. “And I really appreciate you saying that we need to come to the tribal delegation, the whole Assembly needs to be there, and the housing needs are addressed or the language is addressed. If there are things that we’re aware of, we need to do that.”
The other incumbent in the race, District 2 member Christine Woll, said among the ways she’d like to establish better trust with the tribes is having the city support Tlingit and Haida’s “land-into-trust” agreement with the federal government that essentially grants sovereign rights to a downtown parcel, and establishing liaisons to the tribal council as well as “lots of other organizations.”
“I think we’ve been waiting for feedback to come to us,” she said. “We need to go to you all.”
A specific focus on the homelessness question was offered by Areawide candidate Paul Kelly.
“The causes are so many that causes something, some people with mental health and drug addiction issues,” he said. “For some people it has to do with just families being down on their luck…I think we needed a solid strategic plan. I think it’s not just a CBJ issue. It’s not just it’s not just a Bartlett hospital issue. It’s not just a Glory Hall issue.”
Ivan Nance, another candidate seeking an Areawide seat, said he’s had a person experiencing homelessness working for him for the past several months,
“He’s got mental health behavior and substance abuse issues,” he said. “So you’ve got to get in there and work on these problems, provide the services that need to be available to help take care of those problems..”
The education question was the focus of Areawide candidate Ella Akinson’s response, noting that as a legislative staff member one of her biggest battles has been trying to help lawmakers pass an increase in the state’s per-student funding formula.
“If the administration is going to continue to try to prevent us from funding it we need to be creative in how we’re getting around that,” she referring to Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoing half of an increase approved by the Legislature this year. “If that means we have local entities teach school — bypassing the schools by having DIPAC teach fisheries technology or things like that — whatever it is, we need to be sure that we are offering a quality education for our students here.”
Offering more of a personal, less-issue specific, response was Areawide candidate Doreen Lorenz,
My family warned that the Tlingit are the fiercest people on the planet who have never been conquered,” she said. Noting that being divided “is a very dangerous place to go” with the tribes, “if you invite me I will be there with bells on taking notes doing all I can to help.”
The candidates are seeking four open Assembly seats: two Areawide seats, plus one each for District 1 and District 2. There are also three people seeking two Juneau Board of Education seats, and a ballot measure asking voters whether or not to approve a $27 million bond to help pay for a new City Hall building.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.