A bus passes by City Hall downtown in late June. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

My Turn: Juneau City Hall and mail-in voting

I have voted for a new City Hall because I think it makes financial sense and because a new hall has been needed for decades. (Those wanting to see the report of the city’s study of the issue can find it online at “Juneau City Hall History.”)

Some who have written in the Juneau Empire about this issue and the Juneau Assembly have not been even-handed. One writer labeled the financial savings on rents and required renovation “grossly inflated” and accused the Assembly of not being transparent and of “financial shenanigans.” Throwing these and many other loaded words at the proposition tends to poison the opinion of some, not with reason based on facts, but with what seems to be irritable emotion against change.

Change, though, with regard to Juneau’s antique City Hall is exactly what’s needed. I had the good fortune to come to Juneau 48 years ago. City Hall then looked quaintly like the converted fire hall it is and — despite a handsome mural, replaced doors and windows, and paint — it still looks and feels like a renovated fire hall. Inside, it is as it was decades ago—except now it shows the need for a $14-million renovation to bring it “up to code,” a term that does not mean the same as “modernized.” The walls seem false, the hallways and steep stairs are narrow and dark, the office spaces are cramped, and only 40% of the city’s employees can fit into them. For the visitor to City Hall, if fortune smiles, one of the few parking places on dangerously narrow Shattuck or Municipal Way will be found open, but usually, ill fortune requires a walk of several blocks, more often than not in wind and rain. To find other city offices requires going to rented space elsewhere such as a couple of floors up in the Marine Way apartment building. The government of the capital city of Alaska deserves and needs an upgrade from its inconvenient, eerie, cramped, and spread-out quarters.

Commentary has also faulted Juneau’s elected Assembly for a lack of transparency, and cites as examples increased property taxes, non-disclosure of public testimony, and the new city manager selection (a restrictive personnel process). These topics are listed as if proven indictments. They are not, nor can a general readership consider them reasonably because they have nothing to do with the cost of or need for, at long last, a new City Hall.

The greatest, most disappointing part of one column for me was the insinuation that Juneau’s system of voting lacks “transparency” and is an “opportunity for fraud inherent in vote-by-mail systems.” This claim is not valid according to many investigations of recent years as presented in voluminous reports online (see “election fraud found in 2020 or 2022”). It’s wrong to sow doubt with no evidence about a cornerstone of democracy, a secure ballot process. To do so discourages voting and confidence in an elected government.

My election ballot arrived today. It has my full name on it, requires two checks to ensure it’s my vote and requires a secure form of submission. Now that the city has a counting center, the majority of results will take no more time to tally than usual, perhaps less because with early balloting, election workers can prepare ballots for counting on election day just as usual.

Our representative form of government grants elected officials the authority to make decisions on behalf of those who elect them. All members of the electorate have many official ways to address issues of concern. They can seek to vote officials out of office, they can vote ballot issues up or down, they can seek redress online with any assembly member or all of them at once, and with any city employee. They can even appear in person at Assembly meetings to air their issues and be heard on the radio. That’s something that would be much easier to do in a space of reasonable size with reasonable, lighted parking adjacent to the proposed modest, new City Hall.

• Art Petersen is a Juneau resident and a retired professor of English from the University of Alaska Southeast.

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