Dredging delay is a tempest in a teapot

My Turn

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2001

The invective tones in some of the pieces in the Juneau Empire last week regarding harbor dredging were misplaced. To read the editorial and letter in the Empire last week one would think the harbor dredging vote was a referendum on tourism or some significant matter. Somehow this inconsequential vote was turned into a symbolic event by some hot heads with an agenda - a tactic unfortunately common in our little town.

As someone who actually listened to the Assembly discussion about the $500,000 cruise dock dredging project on July 2, I have a different perspective. In my opinion Mayor Sally Smith, Frankie Pillifant and Marc Wheeler deserve our thanks for their thoughtful and cautious approach to spending public funds. Listening on the radio, it was obvious there was a lot of confusion and a general lack of information about the dredging project. For example, the article in Monday's Empire stated the project would allow bigger ships to dock in Juneau. This point was seemingly contradicted by testimony by Port Director Joe Graham.

It was obvious during the Assembly hearing that the City and Borough of Juneau Engineering Department has not had sufficient time to review the dredging proposal. Mr. Graham indicated the Assembly had a month or two to review the dredging project, so Mr. Wheeler asked to send the issue to the Planning and Policy Committee, the CBJ committee which deals with tourism issues. Referring ordinances to a subcommittee is a routine action to allow the Assembly and the public to get more information and have more in-depth discussion on an issue. Assembly members Koelsch, Anderson and Etheridge opposed the motion assigning the dredging proposal to the subcommittee and it failed. But the remaining members of the Assembly decided not to immediately allocate half a million dollars, which meant the original ordinance failed. This allows the Assembly and city staff to gather more information and discuss the issue in-depth before the next Assembly meeting in mid-July.

There was no reason not to wait two weeks and gather a bit more information on this project. I personally favor dredging of our harbor using tonnage tax revenue. I personally think our harbor should be dredged to accommodate larger vessels. But I think it is essential to coordinate the proposal put forward by the Harbors Board with the Engineering Department. A coordinated approach makes sense in this instance. Undoubtedly, the Assembly will take this matter up on reconsideration and arrive at a decision that makes sense taking into account the needs of the entire public.

The mayor and the Assembly members who asked for a brief delay in going forward with this project deserve our thanks for being careful stewards of our public funds. We've already had enough examples this year of the Assembly getting bamboozled by ill-conceived proposals made in haste or based on incomplete information that wasted thousands of dollars. It's not like a dredge is standing by to undertake the work. The contracts for the dredging will be signed later this year for work in the future.

A two-week delay will make sure the work is done right and coordinated in a fashion that will benefit industry and the public alike. In the meantime, could we please stop making tempests-in-teapots when someone asks for more information? The Assembly is not some sophomoric club; the mayor's action on the dredging issue simply insured accountability for the public.

Joe Geldhof is an attorney who lives in west Juneau.

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