Issues are important in Tuesday's city election

Posted: Sunday, October 04, 2009

Juneau voters will go to the polls this Tuesday to elect a mayor, two representatives to the Juneau Assembly, and three School Board members. There also are two propositions on the ballot, both related to fiscal decisions. I already voted early, in order to avoid the lines on Election Day, but the majority of voters will probably wait to case their votes on the last possible day.

Under state law, municipal elections in Alaska are nonpartisan. Candidates don't announce party affiliations when running for local office, but that doesn't mean they have no political affiliations or ideological leanings. Why would we want people without any beliefs leading us? Nevertheless, the lack of formally stated party membership perhaps slightly increases voters' consideration of candidates' personalities and abilities. In the interest of full disclosure, I am co-chairman of the Capital City Republicans, but that certainly doesn't mean I always vote for the more conservative candidate.

Serving as mayor or as an Assembly member is not an easy job. There are lots of meetings, a vast array of issues, not very much staff support and minimal pay. Those who are willing to run deserve our thanks, because despite the unglamorous nature of these local positions, they are crucial to our well-being. Those who are elected devote a tremendous amount of time overseeing the work of the municipal staff who run our local government.

In addition to wanting to elect people who are intelligent, thoughtful and civil, there are several concrete policy issues I considered in deciding whom to support in this year's election. Access is incredibly important, as a means of securing Juneau's position as Alaska's capital, and also as a way of integrating our community with the rest of northern Southeast. While some have in the past described the Juneau Access Project as not a local issue, I find that claim absurd. The Lynn Canal Highway is both practically and symbolically crucial to Juneau's future. It only makes sense that voters would take a candidate's stance on this issue into account when deciding for whom to vote.

The economic viability of Juneau is another subject of primary concern to the Assembly. There have been unnecessary and harmful delays in progress toward opening the Kensington mine, and I hope that those at the helm of our municipal ship will be unswerving in their support this project and other responsible resource development. Some elected officials have weakly stated their support, when what is required is strong, unequivocal talk coupled with decisive action when

The tourism industry is another essential component of Juneau's economic prosperity. We cannot hope for a bright future if our leaders don't embrace this fact. We must balance the need for a vibrant year-round downtown with the reality that the money generated by a million visitors each year is an irreplaceable contributor to our local economy. This translates to local government decisions that encourage visitors to come and welcome them while here.

This year's School Board election follows a lively community conversation about the problem of drug use in Juneau's schools. There is no question that drug use is having severely negative effects on many families in our town. But this is no reason to fire from the hip with a solution, and not to plan for the downstream effects of simply testing kids. The questions of what will happen if a student tests positive, what sort of counseling will be available, and what will be done with the information must be answered, ideally before a strict testing regime is put into place. Voters ought to consider if those who wish to serve on the school board are displaying true leadership by insisting on answers to these tough questions, or just responding to an angry mob by adopting inadequately planned policies.

Both ballot propositions are likely to pass on Tuesday. The first calls for almost $12 million in bonds to issue to pay for major reconstruction of Gastineau Elementary School. This is a very sound project, thus the voters' strong likelihood of approving it by a wide margin. Our schools are crucial infrastructure that directly improve the lives of current and future residents of the capital city. Gastineau was built more than a half a century ago, and now is the time to rebuild it for another 50 years of service.

Proposition 2 would increase the excise tax on tobacco products. Juneau currently has a relatively low rate in comparison to other Alaska towns, and the increase would bring Juneau into line with the statewide average. Tobacco is a major public health issue, and we as a community will be better off as more people stop smoking. Nevertheless, public frustration with the way the ban on smoking in bars was implemented and then modified in recent years may lead to some voter backlash against this tobacco proposal. The lack of any certainty about how the additional approximately $750,000 will be spent beyond vague statements of intent may also lead some voters not to support what otherwise is a fairly sensible proposal.

I strongly encourage all voters to get out and vote this week, whether or not they agree with my views or my predictions about likely outcomes. The health and well-being of our community is well-served by strong participation in the democratic process, which we must never take for granted.

• Ben Brown is a Juneau resident.

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