My Turn: VPSO program is complicated

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

As a longtime resident of Tenakee Springs and a city council member, I am disappointed and puzzled by the Empire's recent articles regarding Tenakee Springs and the Village Public Safety Officer program. How could the "Voice of Alaska's Capital City" show so much interest in the administration of a town with 104 people without addressing the one aspect of the issue with statewide implications? Neither article mentioned the attempt by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska to transfer police power to a nongovernment entity referred to as the "Traditional Council of Tenakee Springs" through a letter of agreement signed in July 2001.

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How would Juneau residents feel about the Juneau Police Department being supervised by private individuals with no connection to the elected municipal government?

Tenakee Springs is a small community on the shores of Tenakee Inlet on Chichagof Island, with a diverse population that includes fishermen, retailers, small business owners and others. Tenakee has a very small Alaska Native population (three people according to the 2000 census), and a relatively high proportion of vacation homes with absentee landowners. An astounding level of resident volunteer effort keeps the volunteer fire department, the emergency medical services team and the city government functioning. At times in the past the VPSO program provided welcome relief for volunteers as well as an efficient link to the Alaska State Troopers.

Administration of the VPSO program in Southeast is a complicated three-way arrangement. CCTH administers state funds that pay for the program, contingent on written agreement with the recognized local government that acknowledges the local government's supervisory role. The success of this peculiar arrangement requires a high level of cooperation and trust.

In recent years, CCTH has failed to cooperate with the elected government of Tenakee Springs or acknowledge the mayor's supervisory role. In June 2001, the Tenakee Springs City Council decided not to renew its contract with CCTH after the dedicated efforts of the mayor to work with CCTH were largely ignored. Rather than responding with an earnest effort to resolve the problems, CCTH threatened that if the decision were not reversed, the position would be kept in the community under the supervision of an unnamed "other entity."

The Empire's April 2 article stated that the City of Tenakee Springs' VPSO contract ended March 2002, when in fact the city's agreement ended in June 2001. The contract that ended in March was between CCTH and the "Traditional Council of Tenakee Springs," and gave supervision of the VPSO position to a private individual in defiance of state law. While it took the state of Alaska six months to recognize the impropriety of this arrangement, in January 2002 the Alaska State Troopers finally wrote a letter acknowledging that the arrangement was "problematic" and would end March 15, 2002.

There are cities in Alaska with both an elected municipal government and a federally recognized tribal government. Our neighbor community Hoonah provides an example of that kind of parallel government, with both an elected municipal government and a federally recognized IRA governing body. However, it is my understanding that it is up to the federal and state governments to confer recognition of tribal government status. CCTH does not have the power to make that decision.

Many Alaskans are unaware of past efforts by Sealaska Corp. and others to reopen the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and create five new Native corporations in Southeast, including one based in Tenakee. Those efforts failed, in large part because the Tenakee claims never came close to meeting the requirements of ANSCA. Could it be that this attempt to establish a new quasi-government entity with police powers is somehow related to another attempt to persuade Congress to allow formation of a new Native corporation?

The VPSO program is a wonderful concept, and at times in the past has fulfilled its promise. I hope that reevaluation of the program structure is possible and will result in that promise being renewed.

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