By DAN FOX
A five-to-one vote on Jan. 18 saw the long-debated memorandum of understanding between Skagway and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad approved by the Borough Assembly.
The motion, made by Assembly Member Steve Burnham Jr., was to approve the MOU as amended that evening, and to direct staff to begin drafting a tidelands lease.
The motion passed 5-1, with Assembly Member David Brena against.
Prior to the final vote, the assembly made one final change to the document, pulling out bullet points that would have provided the municipality with the right of first refusal to purchase the railroad and its assets.
Those conditions were not something the railroad could agree to, according to Tyler Rose, executive director of human resources and strategic planning with White Pass.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense within this document,” Rose said. “If the municipality wishes to purchase the railroad, there is a process with which they can engage to go into that.”
Assembly Member Tim Cochran said the first right of refusal was the only point disagreed upon in the current MOU. Assembly Member Orion Hanson, who is on the borough’s negotiating team with Cochran, said he thinks the MOU is a good document, and that there has been a lot of back and forth over the details in it.
Conversely, Brena said the MOU was not that different from the failed 2015 lease – which was voted down 383 to 167 – and would not be a good deal for the borough.
Though the MOU was approved, an actual lease must still be drawn up and accepted by the majority of Skagway’s voters to make it official.
Two other agenda items concerning the tidelands also received comments from the public and assembly at the Jan. 18 meeting. These were labeled as discussions on default of the current lease between White Pass and Skagway, and of eminent domain regarding the White Pass lease.
The topic had been brought up by Brena at a previous meeting, who said on Jan. 18 there is no doubt in his mind that White Pass is in default of its lease.
“They’ve made the cleanup of the contamination a condition of the MOU,” Brena said. “Cleaning the contamination is their responsibility, we do not need an MOU to have them do that.”
Brena said the beginning of that cleanup process would be to give White Pass a notice of default.
“We should have given them notice when we knew the contamination was in place, and we should give them notice now,” Brena said.
According to Brena, using a notice of default, as well as eminent domain, would be a way for the municipality to facilitate a dock expansion (needed to accommodate larger classes of cruise ships in the port) being built, much sooner than would happen by waiting for the current 1968 lease to expire in five years.
During public comments however, before those topics were reached for discussion, Former Mayor Tim Bourcy levied strong words against putting such items on the same agenda containing the potential approval of the MOU.
“I’m a business owner in this community and I struggle to operate a business year-round in this town,” Bourcy said. “And I don’t appreciate what’s going on, because what you are doing is you’re tearing the fabric of this community apart, you’re sending the wrong message to the people in the Yukon, you’re sending the wrong message to the people in the tourism industry, you’re sending the wrong message to every port stakeholder in that exists within this community.”
Bourcy also asked the assembly when a lease would be put to the voters, and encouraged the members to do just that.
“And what I would say is that you need to have a plan on how you’re going to do it, because the last time the White Pass and municipality went to educate the public about what the lease was, we screwed the pooch,” Bourcy said.
Assembly members Hanson, Cochran, Steve Burnham and Dan Henry also spoke against having eminent domain and a default notice as agenda items.
“It’s horrible timing, and it’s exactly as Mayor Bourcy said: What kind of message are we sending? Are we going to be contentious and just start flinging around that we’re going to have lawsuits, or are we going to try to find solutions to stabilize our town?” Hanson asked.
Assembly Member Jay Burnham said the way he has been voting on the MOU hasn’t been in favor of the document, not because he is opposed to a lease, but because he thinks the municipality could get a better deal than what is currently proposed. That said, Jay Burnham added that he “wouldn’t be opposed to it [notice of default] if there was cause, and I don’t really think now is the right time to bring it up.”
The subject of eminent domain was skipped entirely, as Steve Burnham moved to jump over it directly to the end of the agenda.