The debate topic was public safety, but the candidates found ways to make better police and fire services a matter of lowering property taxes, not building a new City Hall, and other hot-button issues they’re trying to make the focal points of their campaigns.
Thirteen of the 14 candidates seeking four open seats on the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly in the Oct. 3 election participated in the 90-minute debate Thursday evening at the KTOO studios. A sparse live audience was present, but the debate was streamed live and is available at the Juneau Career Firefighters Facebook page.
Because of the number of candidates and length of the forum, not all candidates were given a chance to answer the same questions. Instead the candidates were separated into three groups — 10 candidates seeking two areawide seats were divided into two groups of five people, while the four remaining announced candidates for the District 1 and District 2 seats formed the third group (although only three of the candidates were present at the debate).
There were five rounds of questions, with each group getting a different question during each round. For example, the first round of questions asked five candidates about the state’s lack of defined retirement benefits for public safety workers, the second five candidates about how to make childcare more accessible and affordable, and the third group of candidates about the remedies for the “high rates of burnout, depression, suicide and addiction” among first responders.
All of the possible questions that would be asked at the debate were sent to the candidates several days in advance.
The rules allowed opening statements, but no closing statements or exchanges between the candidates. As such, while there was considerable criticism of the current Assembly by non-incumbent challengers — who represented all but two of the participants — there were few direct responses or rebuttals to previous comments by candidates.
Because direct comparisons on specific questions are not possible for all candidates, the following are summaries of responses by candidates of their opening statements and some of the questions asked.
Areawide Assembly (two open seats)
Jeff Jones: He said he’s been involved in labor negotiations as a member of a plumbers and pipefitters union, and local wages need to be high enough to lure and retain workers, given the lack of a strong state retirement benefit plan. “I understand the need for competitive wages, benefits, and to gain qualified employees and to retain those employees,” he said.
Paul Kelly: The candidate said he also has union ties and city officials need to advocate for the state providing defined retirement benefits. He said workforce shortage issues might also be addressed by applying for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Vets to Cops program, adjusting local pay to reflect cost of living relative to other cities, offering social service programs for issues such as mental health and starting a new volunteer program.
JoAnn Wallace: As a real estate professional, she said her main issue is lowing the cost of housing and everyday expenses, which are things the city can control to help lure and retain public safety workers. She also suggested the city look to local high schools to see if students are interested in scholarships for training as an alternative to college.
Laura Martinson McDonnell: She said her top priority is protecting the economy which will allow issues such as workforce shortages to be addressed. She said local officials should seek additional revenue streams rather than expecting the state to increase benefits, and continue efforts such as offering signing bonuses and nationwide recruiting. “The first thing we can do is really listen to those on the frontlines themselves and find out what they really need,” she said.
Dorene Lorenz: She said public safety employees shouldn’t live in starter homes, or paycheck to paycheck, and local officials need to pressure the state for a direct benefits plan for all public employees since the city can’t enact such policy. She said one local solution for workforce shortages is ensuring that if Juneau is 20% more expensive than Anchorage then employees should be paid 20% more than in that city.
Michele Stuart-Morgan: She said she has a son who is a flight nurse and volunteer firefighter. She suggested addressing a lack of childcare for public safety employees by having UAS offer a training program to help low-wage childcare workers get degrees. She also suggested better retirement benefits to help address the 23% vacancy rate at the Juneau Police Department.
Ivan Nance: He said the city is a big enterprise with 600 employees that relies on about $400 million in annual taxes from residents, so “there should be high expectations for customer service.” He suggested the lack of child care can be addressed with “more teamwork, more coordination and more focus on that.” When asked about the police department’s 23% vacancy rate, he said “this looks like a great place to me compared to some of the urban other places that you can be a policeman in,” so maybe local officials need to dig deeper to find out the causes of the high rate.
Nathaniel “Nano” Brooks: The candidate said “I’ve seen way too many of my friends, family, neighbors, and fellow community members leave this town because they feel like it’s no longer practical for them to make a living or raise a family.” He said incentives such as tax credits and subsidies should be offered to encourage more childcare businesses, and there should continue to be support for city-sponsored programs such as RALLY. He suggested the police department’s high vacancy rate can be addressed by lowering property taxes, offering land raffles and offering other incentives for people to stay
Ella Adkison: She said Juneau needs a full staffing of first responders to create a community people want to move to and invest in. She questioned the level of state support for child care and suggested local officials also need to ensure funds received are being used in the most effective ways. She said the high vacancy rate at the department can be addressed through better salary and benefits, and possibly having non-police employees deal with non-violent incidents such as mental health and addiction.
Emily Mesch: She said she has been involved in numerous local entities including the Shéiyi Xaat Hít youth shelter, which “gives me a unique perspective on public safety and security.” She suggested the city can get more involved with programs such as RALLY to help address childcare shortages, and better salaries and nationwide recruiting can help address police department employee shortages.
Assembly District 1 (one open seat)
Joe Geldhof: He opened by stating public safety workers deserve a living wage and housing needs to be more affordable. He reiterated affordable living costs as the first remedy for burnout-related problems among public safety employees. When asked about Juneau’s inability to rely on mutual aid from other communities when staffing he short, he said new members on the Assembly are needed because it spends money on outside consultants to study tourism, housing and other development, rather than public safety and street maintenance.
Alicia Hughes-Skandijs: The incumbent, noting her father was a police officer, said a comprehensive solution to burnout among public safety employees that includes adequate wages, access to child care, and providing and destigmatizing mental health services is needed. She said dealing with a lack of mutual aid from other communities means full staffing. and “if the volunteer model is dead, and that does seem to be the case nationally…then it’s going to be a hit budgetarily.”
Assembly District 2 (one open seat)
David Morris: The candidate did not participate in the debate.
Christine Woll: The incumbent, noting she is married to a firefighter, called the vacancy rate among public safety employees unacceptable. “I’m not sure the city has done enough to recruit and retain our staff,” she said. Resolving that is a key to addressing the issues related to burnout among overworked public safety workers, she added. She said that’s also the key to addressing the lack of mutual aid from surrounding communities. “Increasing staffing is going to cost more money. But I think we can focus on growing our economy so that the city can afford to pay for that, while not burdening our taxpayers,” she said.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 957-2306.