Election, lake accident among top city stories of 2012

Hot issues spurred debate in Juneau last year

Benjamin Franklin once said that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”


Death and taxes may be certainties, as Franklin said, but they were also at the center of some of the events that made the biggest news of 2012 in Juneau.

A collision on Auke Lake on June 23 that injured one teenager and killed another, 16-year-old Savannah Cayce, sparked a fierce debate over the management of the lake. Some argued for more regulation or enforcement, while others said accidents are inevitable and any new restrictions would be unwarranted.

Auke Lake management is an ongoing discussion. The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee is set to meet next Tuesday to discuss any recommendations it may make to the Borough Assembly.

Cayce’s death was not the only loss felt in Juneau last year.

The dramatic burning of the Gastineau Apartments in downtown Juneau on Nov. 5 displaced several dozen people and covered much of the city in black smoke. While the fire’s only fatality was a pet cat, the blaze ignited renewed discussion about such topics as downtown fire safety, the availability of housing and local emergency response.

Commenters online generally praised the response of firefighters and expressed concern about those who were affected.

Another human loss also rocked the community in November, as David G. Stone, then-deputy commissioner of the Department of Labor & Workforce Development, died unexpectedly on Nov. 20, little more than a month after retiring from the Assembly after nine years of service.

The comments section on the breaking news story reporting Stone’s death quickly filled up with condolences for Stone’s family and tributes to his public service. Several hundred people attended his funeral at Centennial Hall on Dec. 5.

Some stories that got a big response from Empire readers last year were more upbeat.

Commenters expressed joy and pride in their community after the Empire reported on Nov. 20 that local charities like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Glory Hole shelter had received enough donations to provide hundreds of families with Thanksgiving dinner, just one week after the Glory Hole’s executive director said the shelter was low on food for the holiday. A few were more critical, pointing out that the same last-minute flood of donations had happened in previous years or expressing doubt that the food was going to people who were in the most need.

The municipal election is an annual story in Juneau, but last October’s election was about more than just the candidates.

From the time the general obligation bond issue the city will use to fund several infrastructure projects around town was mooted, commenters on the Juneau Empire’s website were vocal about it — most of them in staunch opposition. Many also decried a proposal to extend a 1 percent special sales tax, a component of Juneau’s 5 percent areawide sales tax, for five more years.

Both propositions ended up passing, although the bond issue did so by less than 100 votes. The story from Election Night on Oct. 2 set off a lengthy discussion in the Empire’s comments section, with commenters expressing their feelings about the election results and challenging whether the general sentiment among those who comment on stories is representative of Juneau’s voting electorate.

Empire commenters also reacted to a heated exchange between then-Assemblymember Ruth Danner and Port Director Carl Uchytil in July, which began when Danner emailed Uchytil and city leaders with a letter also sent to the Empire asking that Juneau Docks and Harbors pull a request for $1.3 million in funding from the 1 percent sales tax extension for the planned Statter Harbor facility in Auke Bay.

Across the comments section of multiple stories, several commenters sided with Danner, praising her for challenging city staff and asking questions about the project. Others criticized her tone or defended Docks and Harbors.

Education in Juneau also drew readers’ attention, as the Juneau School District publicly grappled with a limited budget and larger than expected increases in the student population at several schools. Fifty-two comments were posted on a Sept. 1 story in which the Empire reported the school district’s acknowledgement that a number of Juneau schools were well above the desired pupil-teacher ratio, decrying shortfalls in school funding and describing large class sizes as a large, endemic problem for the district.

The JSD Board of Education ultimately acted to reduce class sizes at four schools, adding a teacher at three elementary schools and allocating funding for another science lab section at Juneau-Douglas High School.


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