The Juneau Empire's March 18, front-page article about the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program in Tenakee Springs implied an amazing consensus in the community, in printing that 90 out of 104 favored keeping the program in the community. These numbers are very misleading and give a false impression of the feelings of the town. The number 90 actually refers to a list of names (never officially presented to the city) of a mix of voters and property owners. Not all property owners are voters in the city. There are 126 voters and over 280 properties. Some of the 90 included multiple owners of properties who were not voters. This was no consensus, but a polarization that emerged between property owners supporting the law enforcement function of the program, and between year-round residents not demonstrating support for a VPSO program falling short of its promises. Over the years, the presence of the VPSO program did not have a strong preventative function in our community.
The city supports law enforcement and good relations with the Alaska State Troopers. If the VPSO program was meant to be only an arm of state law enforcement there would likely not be an issue here. A VPSO for the most part carries out an investigative function only - a VPSO cannot arrest someone unless there has been a charge (requires investigation first) and most often a state trooper still has to come to the community. VPSOs are not allowed to carry firearms.
The VPSO program is to provide multipublic safety services to communities, such as fire protection and prevention, emergency medical services (EMS), law enforcement, and search and rescue. Tenakee Springs has EMS and firefighting teams whose strengths are its volunteers and their support is a primary consideration for the City Council. When the VPSO program does not provide support for these vital services and only gives the community a presence of state law enforcement, the promises of the program have been denied to the community. Previous mayors and city councils were subject to a VPSO program without sufficient direction and support. This left the community with a broken program. In June 2001, the City Council decided to not renew the annual agreement that allowed the VPSO program in the community.
This was met, not with concern for mending the situation or a call to work things out, but with a threat that if the City Council did not reverse their decision the VPSO would be kept in the community under the auspices of some other group. When the City Council met in July 2001 they again discussed the VPSO program, (there was minimal public input and no list of names of support presented at this meeting) and took no action to change their pervious decision.
It became apparent through the summer that a VPSO was still serving in the community. Lacking an agreement with the city, the presence of a VPSO in the city of Tenakee Springs since July 1, 2001, is not just of a questionable legal status, but most definitely is in violation of state law. As the only local governing body in the city of Tenakee Springs, the City Council has not agreed to the presence and in fact any such presence is a police presence without accountability to an elective governing body duly recognized by federal and state law - something everyone should abhor. It took many months and a lot of work by some community members to convince those running the VPSO program that maybe there was something amiss in what they were doing in Tenakee Springs. In January 2002 the AST wrote, in somewhat guarded language, that, yes, there were problems with the presence of a VPSO in Tenakee Springs without the agreement of the city government. They further stated that unless the city of Tenakee Springs signed an agreement by March 15, 2002, funding for the position would be removed.
Our local government would approach any new agreement for the VPSO program with a great deal of caution. The city overall has been harmed, its governing powers interfered with, and its citizenry left in a void. The city has always been supportive of what the VPSO program was intended to do, but in the future has the right to expect that the program live up to its intentions.
Janice J. Eagle is mayor of Tenakee Springs.