A year in review: City Hall's biggest stories in 2016

As this year draws quickly to its close, it’s becoming increasingly clear that any future mention of 2016 will — for Americans anyway — primarily call to mind a divisive national election and a slew of celebrity deaths.

 

Countless social media posts, internet memes and casual conversations taking place daily corroborate this.

But for those who dared to delve deeper into the news than pop culture headlines, this year will be remembered for much more. The following list contains some of the most notable stories involving Juneau city government during 2016.

 

Balance of power shifts in Assembly

Late last year, the untimely death of then-Mayor Greg Fisk threw the city Assembly into a turbulent period of several months, during which the city’s governing body had to fill two vacancies and decide how it would replace the mayor.

Last December, the Assembly voted 5–3 to hold a special mayoral election to fill Fisk’s former seat, prompting political upheaval. Though Assembly seats are nonpartisan, those who hold them tend to generally subscribe to progressive and conservative stances on city issues. (It’s important to note that these labels don’t align perfectly with the Democratic and Republican parties.)

The five Assembly members who voted for a special mayoral election — Karen Crane, Maria Gladziszewsi, Loren Jones, Jesse Kiehl and Kate Troll — were of the progressive camp, as was Fisk. The three who voted against the election — Mary Becker, Jerry Nankervis and Debbie White — belonged to the conservative camp.

At the time of the vote, and up until the special election was held in March, Becker acted as mayor of Juneau, a post she rose to by virtue of having been deputy mayor at the time of Fisk’s death. Becker, White and Nankervis felt slighted by the call for the special election. They saw the decision as a power grab, and in former Assembly member Ken Koelsch they found a prime candidate for the Mayor’s seat.

In early January, Crane resigned her seat on the Assembly to go toe to toe with Koelsch in the mayoral race. In March, Koelsch won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He had raised tens of thousands of dollars more than Crane running a campaign in which one of his primary platforms was the repeal of the senior sales tax restrictions that the Assembly had approved the year before.

[All ballots counted, Koelsch is new mayor]

With the special election in the rearview — and having appointed Jamie Bursell to fill Crane’s seat after she resigned — the Assembly had shifted from a 6–3 progressive-conservative split to a more-balanced 5–4.

When the regular municipal election rolled around in the fall, Koelsch once again mobilized his robust support base and threw his weight behind Becker, Norton Gregory and Beth Weldon.

Becker was fighting to hold her seat against newcomer Arnold Liebelt. Gregory was challenging incumbent Troll. Weldon was running unopposed. Like Koeslch, all three supported a repeal of the senior sales tax restrictions.

All three Koelsch-supported candidates won their seats in October, shifting the Assembly balance of power for the first time in years in favor of the conservatives with a 6–3 split.

[Becker, Gregory, Weldon win Assembly seats]

 

City sued by cruise industry

In mid April, the Cruise Lines International Association’s Alaska affiliate sued the City and Borough of Juneau over an alleged misuse of marine passenger fees.

In the ongoing lawsuit, CLIAA’s attorneys are arguing that the city violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, among other laws, by spending roughly $10 million of marine passenger fee revenue — also know as head tax revenue — on a man-made island. The island will be a part of a downtown seawalk leading from the cruise terminals to Bridge Park, the site of the whale sculpture, near the Douglas Bridge.

Each cruise passenger who comes through Juneau pays a $5 marine passenger fee and a $3 port development fee to the city. CLIAA President John Binkley has said several times that his agency believes these fees can only be spent on infrastructure improvements that directly benefit both cruise passengers and cruise ships, meaning they have to be closer to the docks than the man-made island about one mile down the road.

The city, which is actively fighting the lawsuit, disagrees. Municipal officials, such as City Manager Rorie Watt, have sited a legislative audit of the Commercial Passenger Vessel Program — the state’s head tax apparatus — as evidence of innocence.

The audit found that Juneau hasn’t misused any of the roughly $34 million it has received from the CPV program since it began in 2007.

[Audit: No misuse of Juneau's head taxes]

“We had no problems with how Juneau spent their state CPV taxes,” legislative auditor Kris Curtis told the Empire in late April.

In early October, a U.S. District Court Judge denied a request by the city to dismiss the lawsuit. The legal battle is ongoing.

 

Assembly passes equal rights ordinance

Toward the end of August, the Assembly passed an ordinance banning, for the first time in the city’s history, discrimination based on race, color, age, religion, sex, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and or national origin.

Surrounded by supporters of the ordinance who packed City Hall to watch the city’s governing body make history, the Assembly passed the anti-discrimination measure with an 8–1 vote. Assembly member Jerry Nankervis offered the lone objection.

[Assembly passes equal rights ordinance]

Nearly 30 people testified in favor of the ordinance at a public meeting held in the Assembly Chambers a couple months earlier. Many of those who testified felt a personal connection to the proposed law.

Kristen Bomengen told the Assembly that she had twice been evicted during the 1980s because two separate landlords didn’t approve of her sexual orientation. She is a lesbian.

The ordinance was the brainchild of Assembly member Kiehl, who said several people had approached him about the city’s lack of an overarching anti-discrimination law.

 

After long regulatory slog, Juneau’s first pot shop opens

The night before Thanksgiving — or “Danksgiving” as it was jokingly referred to by some — Rainforest Farms made Juneau’s first legal sale of marijuana at a small private party.

[Juneau's first marijuana sale goes without a hitch]

Two days later, when the shop opened its doors to the masses, a line trailed out the door and around the block. The business sold out of marijuana in the first couple hours it was open.

There’s now a growing list of prospective marijuana businesses in the various stages of the city and state licensing and permitting processes. But this list wouldn’t be possible without the work of several industry members and governmental bodies who spent the better part of two years drafting and approving regulations for the budding industry.

After Alaska voters approved the ballot measure legalizing the sale of commercial marijuana in November 2014, the City and Borough of Juneau developed a marijuana policy committee to start establishing rules. That committee’s work continued into the early days of 2016, after which it passed its proposed regulations over to the city’s Planning Commission and Assembly.

The regulations didn’t fly through the public process once they let the Marijuana Committee. They moved slowly through the Planning Commission and the Assembly. The most recent regulations were approved in October when voters in the municipal election directed the city to tax marijuana sales at 8 percent — the same rate as alcohol.

The Planning Commission awarded its first conditional use permit for a marijuana business in late March.

 

Gov. passes state debt to city

Days before the city’s budget for Fiscal Year 2017 became effective on July 1, Gov. Bill Walker forced the city to reopen its budget discussions.

In an attempt to force the Alaska Legislature to draft a sustainable budget and close its then roughly $4 billion budget gap, Walker used his veto pen to cut about $1.3 billion in state spending, forcing municipalities to shoulder much of that load.

Walker’s vetoes impacted the City and Borough of Juneau to the tune of nearly $5 million, most of which came from a veto of school debt reimbursement funding.

[With vetoes, Walker slashes into city budget]

The Assembly decided to cover the majority of the veto-induced deficit using its available fund balance — an amalgamation of years of city revenue savings and leftover money from capital improvement projects. The city drew about $2.8 million out of the available fund balance, which was at the time about $12.3 million.

The Assembly decided to use $696,000 previously allocated to deferred facility maintenance to help cover the deficit. It directed the city to cover the remaining portions of the debt finding $500,000 in general government operating budget savings and spending $400,000 of sales tax revenue generated during the last fiscal year to cover the rest of the deficit.

In September, Walker sat down with the Assembly in City Hall to explain why he felt he needed to use his veto power as he had.

 

Gastineau Apartments demolished

In the first few weeks of 2016, the twice-burned, long-vacant Gastineau Apartment buildings came down.

Most of the work the city did leading up to the demolition of the blighted buildings at the corner of Franklin and Front streets happened in the years before 2016. The apartments had been empty since a fire destroyed one of the three apartment buildings in November 2012.

Ever since, the abandoned buildings were a frequent topic of discussion in City Hall, where Assembly members debated how best to handle the buildings, which were still under the ownership of Juneau resident James Barrett.

[Photo: Gastineau demolished]

The Assembly ultimately decided to demolish the buildings, which several people complained were becoming a safety hazard and a home for squatters, and hand the $1.3 million bill to Barrett.

The buildings came down without issue before the end of January. In March, the city filed suit against Barrett and his mother, Kathleen — with whom he owns the building — to recover money it spent taking down the buildings. That legal fight is not yet finished.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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