Spending up to $50,000 in public funds to “provide information” about two measures likely to appear on the Oct. 4 municipal election ballot, concerning a bond to fund a new city hall and repealing a property buyer disclosure rule, is being recommended by Juneau‘s city manager.
Such action — while not necessarily calling it advocacy — will help ensure voters get a full overview of the issues involved in the measures since campaigning on them by stakeholder groups may be largely one-sided, said City Manager Rorie Watt.
“Maybe we’re going to do it, maybe we’re not going to do it,” he said. “But I feel it’s important for the Assembly to have that discussion.”
Public consideration of funding the information campaigns will likely occur during the Assembly’s meeting Aug. 1, Watt said.
He said he is not aware of city funds being spent for such a purpose previously. A search of campaign finance reports by groups and entities since 2008 in the Alaska Public Offices Commission’s online database shows none for the City and Borough of Juneau or anything similar.
The Assembly has, however, provided funding to the Alaska Committee to oppose votes on moving the capital, said Assembly Member Maria Gladziszewski.
“I think we’ve funded that one every time it’s come up,” she said.
The two draft ordinances Watt submitted to the Assembly for consideration definitely advocate for a certain position on their respective ballot questions. But he also included a disclaimer.
“The Assembly may determine that it is inappropriate for staff to advocate for the outcome of this ballot proposition and may decline to adopt this Ordinance,” he wrote in one of the proposals.
Watt also noted in an interview “it’s tricky for the city if we’re going to try to influence the election” since it would likely involve actions including registering with and filing APOC reports. There’s also motivation for the city to act beyond advocating for the Assembly-approved items being subject to a public vote.
“If we don’t do that people are probably going to get their information from social media, which probably isn’t going to be very accurate,” he said.
One of the ballot measures is a bond to fund most of a new City Hall at 450 Whittier St., projected to cost roughly $40 million. Discussions involving local politicians and residents have at times been contentious about the need to replace or upgrade the existing aging city hall, possible locations for a new building and features worthy of inclusion.
Watt’s recommendation to spend $25,000 “to advocate for this proposition and educate the public of the merits of construction of a new city hall prior to the October election” leaves little room for doubt about the position the city would be taking.
“Absent municipal participation in this important public decision, voters are likely to not have access to the facts or best arguments in favor of the proposal for a new City Hall,” he wrote.
A similarly definitive stance is taken on the other ballot measure, which would repeal a requirement that property buyers publicly disclose the purchase price. The Assembly narrowly enacted the ordinance in 2020, but it was largely toothless until a fine of $50 a day for buyers not complying was approved this spring.
The latter action resulted in a successful petition circulated by real estate agents and other stakeholders to put the repeal on the ballot. The Assembly can nullify the ballot measure if they vote to repeal the ordinance Aug. 1, which Watt advised against, instead arguing for the second information campaign.
“During public hearing of this Ordinance, the Assembly should debate the best way to provide the public with information about the reasons why the Administration recommended and the Assembly approved the requirement for disclosure of property sale prices,” Watt wrote.
“As it is likely that the sponsors of the referendum will advocate in favor of passage, it is important for the Assembly to consider how the public may understand its action in balancing the needs of privacy of financial information and the needs of equitable taxation,” Watt wrote in recommending $25,000 for an information campaign on the measure.
“A repeal would give the Assessor less information which would force the Assessor to speculate about real estate market activity. Less sales information and more speculation about the market would result in less accurate assessments that are more prone to surprising value corrections. With passage of this appropriating ordinance, the Assembly and appointed officials would be able to publicly support the merit of mandatory price disclosure and oppose its repeal.”
A mixed verdict on funding the two information efforts was offered by Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale
“I like the idea of CBJ funding information about City Hall because we’ve been talking about it for a while and there’s been different proposals out there, so I think it’s a good idea for people to know what the city is talking about.”
As for the property sale disclosure repeal, “I’m not so sure on that,” Hale said. “Perhaps that’s better for the Assembly members to address themselves since we approved the ordinances.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Assembly member Wade Bryson, among the most vocal advocates for a new city hall and a strong opponent of the sales disclosure ordinance.
“They’re just kind of defending themselves,” he said about the idea of providing funding for the repeal measure.
Gladziszewski took an opposite view, stating she might favor funding an information campaign about the repeal ordinance since there doesn’t appear to a political group to counter the group that put it on the ballot. But she said she is still undecided about the concept of the Assembly funding such actions in general.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.