With the votes from polls all counted and the absentee ballots turned in, the official election results are out, and the outcome remains the same.
The proposed Tidelands lease between the White Pass & Yukon Route railway and the municipality failed on an even larger scale than first anticipated, with 383 votes against and 167 votes in favor.
With the failure of the lease, comes uncertainty about the Gateway Project and remediation of the ore basin. For now, there are no plans to work toward gaining site control or creating another lease with White Pass, whose current lease ends in 2023.
With such a loud outcry against the lease, the municipality has decided to hire the McDowell Group to create a post-election survey for voters, in an attempt to discern why they voted the way they did.
“We want to try to figure out a little bit more about what we voted against,” Mayor Mark Schaefer said. “Were they voting against Gateway? If it’s about the lease, is it about White Pass? Do we not want a lease at all? What is it?”
Though certain opponents of the lease have made their voices heard, Schaefer said he wants to hear from the other 500.
“Looking back, somebody said we should have done the survey before, but I don’t think that ever occurred to the table,” he said. “We just went about doing our business.”
During an Oct. 8 assembly meeting, Assemblyman Gary Hanson said he has been against the lease for the past two years and felt vindicated that the public voted so overwhelmingly against it.
Originally a member of the lease negotiation team, Hanson said they first asked for site control.
“At that time, we were not talking about a lease extension. We were asking White Pass to keep any talks about a lease extension separate from site control,” he said.
Assemblyman Dan Henry agreed with Hanson, saying White Pass was presented with a buyout of $2 million.
“It was greeted with less than open arms,” Henry said. “They didn’t even respond with a counter. They responded with ‘We would like a new lease.’”
After Henry and Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. voted to go forward with a lease extension, Hanson said he resigned from the team.
“I still believe that there are a lot of people in town that think we should hold out for local ownership of the port. I believe that we can do it, and it will be the best thing that we could possibly do,” he said.
Ken Russo spoke to the assembly about the entire process on Oct. 15, calling it a spur of the moment type thing.
“Everything that happened was all executive session. The public didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
[quote_right]“Everything that happened was all executive session. The public didn’t know what was going on,” he said.[/quote_right]
He said the negotiating team should have been comprised of professionals, and said the appearance of assemblymen going to Florida and “getting put up by Mr. Sahi and playing golf” was unprofessional.
He added that the deal itself was bad and leaned toward White Pass.
“It stunk so bad to a lot of people that they didn’t need to come here, they just knew to vote no,” he said. “If you’re thinking about a survey, maybe you should have thought of one ahead of time, not after the fact, when it went down in flames.”
Roger Griffin agreed with Russo, saying the public expects to be consulted in such matters, as everyone has a stake in it.
“There were a lot of people talking. Nobody was listening,” he said.
With the lack of site control from the lease’s failure, the Gateway Project’s future is undetermined, but Schaefer said they will continue on with the design and permitting process as it’s already been paid for.
If stopped now, the municipality wouldn’t save any money, he said, adding that the design might be useful in the future.
With his three-year term now ended, Assemblyman Hanson urged the assembly to forget about a lease extension as they move forward.
“Present to the railroad, in 2023 your lease is not going to be renewed, so where do we go from here?” Hanson said. “How do we get this place cleaned up before you hand it over to us? It’s going to be clean. That’s how the negotiation should go.”
Jay Burnham replaced Hanson on the assembly, receiving 229 votes. Incumbent Steve Burnham Jr. took the lead with 333 votes.
“I’m extremely flattered and humbled to have been reelected for another three years,” Burnham Jr. said. “I fully realize that even people who didn’t vote for me are expecting to be represented fairly and impartially.”
He also thanked Hanson for his time and dedication to the assembly.
Write-in candidate David Brena received 187 votes and Mavis Irene Henricksen received 95.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Schaefer led in the polls with 312 votes to Roger Griffin’s 213.
Schaefer thanked the community for their support and said the municipality will humbly go forward with the work ahead of them.
“The election process is a bit of a distraction from getting the normal business we do, done. We’ll get back to that,” he said.
White Pass officials could not be reached for comment.