By DAN FOX
After holding a number of consecutive executive sessions throughout the summer months, the Borough Assembly faced criticism on Aug. 16 from business owners and members of the public over its use of the closed-door meetings.
These sessions occurred at nearly every meeting since late May; Topics listed for the executive sessions focused primarily on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad – which was recently sold by TWC Enterprises LTD. – and issues surrounding the municipality’s waterfront and port.
The agenda for Aug. 16 had also contained an executive session with a bullet point covering a discussion of legal implications and options related to planning for the Port of Skagway.
Criticisms about a perceived lack of transparency and requests for the municipality to engage with the new White Pass owners came in the form of both letters sent to the assembly and public comments at the Aug. 16 meeting; Mayor Monica Carlson addressed the content of the letters at the beginning of the evening.
“The assembly sitting at this table has taken the future of our port seriously,” Carlson said. “We know time is of the essence and the decisions this table will be making the next three, six, maybe nine months will affect the future generations of this community.
“The port is our children’s’ future, and we do not take this task lightly, and we were elected to do the peoples’ business, and that includes due diligence.”
Carlson said she has been in contact with Bob Berto, the new White Pass president, and that the assembly understands the economic impacts of not moving forward with construction of new infrastructure capable of handling larger cruise ships.
“Executive sessions are used for very specific purposes,” Carlson said. “We do not arbitrarily call an executive session on a whim.”
Assembly Member Orion Hanson listed a number of business owners, White Pass representatives, residents and former mayors that he’s spoken with recently on the topic of the waterfront.
“I know we haven’t laid out our cards as an assembly at this time, but we are working diligently in pursuit of a new partnership on the waterfront,” Hanson said.
Despite the statements by Hanson and Carlson, the gallery was filled with people looking to make comments on the situation.
Former Mayor Tim Bourcy said he was “perplexed as to what is going on,” and questioned the apparent lack of response to a letter sent from the new White Pass president to the assembly several weeks ago.
“And then there’s an executive session at the bottom of this [meeting agenda],” Bourcy said. Bourcy claimed the executive session would be a violation of the Alaska Statutes governing public meetings, and told the assembly that if it went into an executive session at the end of the Aug. 16 meeting he would file a complaint with the state.
“What I would encourage you to do is to amend the agenda and have a discussion item where you – in front of God and everybody because you are a public entity – talk about what you want, what does this community want,” Bourcy said.
Resident Joel Probst thanked Carlson for her comments and “clarification there on what a lot of us I think perceived as non-action from the assembly.”
Business owner Jan Wrentmore encouraged the assembly to acknowledge and respond to Berto’s letter, and said she was concerned that the only reference to port development on the agenda that evening was in the executive session.
That sentiment was also shared by business owner Mike Healy.
“There’s a number of people that I tried to get to come this evening and they said, ‘why, so I can’t listen to an executive session?’” Healy said.
Instead of entering the executive session near the end of the meeting, the assembly voted to strike it from the agenda.
One of the items slated for the executive session had been discussion of a request for information (RFI), which the assembly had asked staff to draft on Aug. 2.
While the motion to cancel the executive session was being discussed, Borough Clerk Emily Deach said she would compile the various attorney notes onto the draft RFI and provide it to the assembly for discussion at its next meeting.
“I don’t see any reason really that we need to discuss the RFI in its final form in executive session, I think we should do that in public,” Assembly Member David Brena said.
The vote to strike the executive session passed 5-0.
A Committee of the Whole meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 24, with the topic of the meeting being a work session with White Pass.