Tenakee council boots VPSO

About 90 people in 104-person town sign petition to keep public safety officer

Posted: Monday, March 18, 2002

As of Friday, Tenakee Springs no longer has any local means of law enforcement because the city could not reach an agreement for a new contract with the Tlingit-Haida Central Council's Village Public Safety Officer program.

The city had until Friday to reach agreement with Central Council, which maintains the program with funding from the Alaska State Troopers.

A VPSO is a contract position. The officer provides law enforcement, firefighting and prevention, emergency medical services, animal control, and water and boating safety to rural communities that may not be able to afford to provide it for themselves. There are 30 VPSOs in Alaska, seven of whom are in Southeast.

The city decided last June to end its contract with Central Council when it expired this year because it did not feel the program was "a good fit" with the community, according to a written statement to the Empire from Tenakee Mayor Janice Eagle.

About 90 voters and landowners in the 104-resident town, about 50 miles southwest of Juneau, signed a petition to keep the VPSO program. Residents, in letters to city and state officials, said they were worried that dropping the program would affect public safety, crime prevention and property protection.

The City Council voted unanimously at a Feb. 28 meeting to negotiate the terms of a new agreement with the Central Council if it could replace VPSO Patrick Zemaneck and Robin Lown, VPSO supervisor for the Southeast.

Though the city did not meet Friday's deadline, Lown said the state troopers would continue to fund the program in hopes an agreement could be reached. He also said no one would be fired without just cause.

Without VPSOs, the troopers in Juneau become the nearest source of law enforcement.

Residents expressed concern, in letters to officials, that it is difficult for troopers to get to Tenakee in a timely manner due to weather and darkness. In some cases, residents said, it can take troopers anywhere from two days to a week to get to Tenakee.

Lown said it is important to have a local authority available to make arrests and bring unruly situations, such as domestic violence, under control.

Mayor Eagle said the city hasn't always had a VPSO program. The city made do without it before, she said, and can do it again.

"If something happens we will do as we've done in the past: We will get together as a community and take care of it," she said. "In an emergency medical situation people will still call the EMTs, for fire, the fire department, and if there is a crime, they can call the state troopers and if it's an emergency, they can call a council member, I guess."

Though there is not an abundance of crime in Tenakee, according to a letter from Central Council to residents, Zemaneck was involved in the investigation of several "serious" felony and misdemeanor crimes since he began in 2000.

The letter went on to state that Zemaneck assisted in the removal of violators from Tenakee who were "threatening other residents," bear control, assisted in emergency medical situations and helped maintain the Tenakee search and rescue boat.

In her statement to the Empire, Eagle said people have become "fed up with the program and tired of it never living up to its promises and just not wanting to deal with it anymore."

Eagle said "promises" such as assisting with medical situations and firefighting, which would relieve the burden of the local volunteers, did not happen. She said that the program exhibited a "lack of direction and support," and that past VPSOs either didn't respond to inquiries by firefighters and EMTs or "ill-handled" responses.

Lown said, while fire and medical service is in the VPSOs job description, it is as an assistant only. VPSOs receive eight weeks of training at the Public Safety Academy in Sitka as well as 40 hours of in-service training.

"Our motto is we are the 'first responders of the last frontier,' " said Lown. "Our officers are generally the first on the scene in a medical situation and are trained to render basic first aid. Anything more than that we leave to the volunteers in the area who are trained and have more experience."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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