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SE support for keeping session has eroded

Juneau leaders say it's time to reach out to neighboring towns in fight to keep Legislature

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2001

The public relations battle to keep legislative sessions in the capital city will have to start in Juneau's backyard.

Some Southeast voters supportive of past efforts to keep the capital here are not inclined to support Juneau in 2002 if a citizens' initiative to move sessions to the Matanuska-Susistna Borough makes it to the statewide ballot, said Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, which is heading an effort to defeat the measure.

Gruening cited anecdotal information as evidence Juneau has alienated people in outlying communities in recent years, and he confirmed that a recent statewide poll commissioned by the committee measured sentiment in Southeast.

"From all the evidence, our support has eroded," said Gruening, who declined to give details on the poll numbers. "I think there's some fence mending that needs to be done."

Wrangell City Manager Bob Prunella agreed that Juneau has lost friends in his town and partly blamed the turnaround on local environmental groups.

"I lay part of the demise of the timber industry on certain groups that are quite prevalent in Juneau, and a lot of people say that, by the way," said Prunella, who emphasized his opposition to moving the session.

Ketchikan's borough mayor pointed to an incident last year as evidence Juneau is anti-logging. Mayor Jack Shay said a group of Southeast political leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., late last year to oppose a federal proposal to ban new roads in national forests, but Juneau did not send a delegate. Juneau's absence was conspicuous, and it rankled people who depend on the timber industry, he said.

"I would like to think most people down here appreciate the value of having the capital remain in Southeast, but I can't say that to be factual," Shay said.

Juneau Mayor Sally Smith said she declined the invitation for the Washington trip because it conflicted with her schedule. The city tried in vain to find an alternate, she said.

"We asked several people to go, and they were not able to go," Smith said.

But many critics feel Juneau would have been there if the issue were a priority, said Dave Fremming, who routinely talks to people across the Panhandle as publisher of the Juneau-based Alaskan Southeaster Magazine.

Fremming said the anti-Juneau sentiment has been growing and that it goes beyond timber issues.

"We've ignored the needs of fishermen, we've ignored the needs of loggers. We flat told the miners that we don't want them," Fremming said. "Some of them I think want to have an opportunity to take a poke back at us."

Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula and Sen. Kim Elton reinforced the perception Juneau is anti-development when they voted against a resolution last session to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said Shay, the Ketchikan mayor.

Elton was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Kerttula defended her vote, saying Alaska Natives opposed to oil drilling were being ignored. She called the criticisms of Juneau "posturing."

"We are not anti-development. We want good sound development for Alaska. That's my perception of Juneau overall as a community," said Kerttula, who predicted Southeast voters in the end would recognize the importance of keeping government here and support Juneau.

Juneau Assembly member Dale Anderson was not so sure.

"The persona Juneau carries in Southeast Alaska is sad, it's very sad. And I don't know what in the world to do to turn it around," Anderson said.

A community advisory board for the Juneau Empire on Wednesday floated the idea of a Southeast summit to help heal some wounds. Gruening, of the Alaska Committee, said his group would consider the idea. Some of the political leaders contacted by the Empire thought a summit was a good idea, and none of them believed their city councils would publicly turn against Juneau.

"Perhaps a mild chastisement will be enough to put us on the plus side," Shay said.

The citizens' initiative to move legislative sessions from Juneau was certified by the state last month. Sponsors need to collect roughly 29,000 signatures to get it on the statewide ballot.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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