Tourism again dominates the news in 2000

The year in review: Election, ferries, murders, bears, mental health among other major Juneau issues

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

Tourism played a major role in city elections, business negotiations and neighborhood conversations during the year 2000 in Juneau.

Cruise ships, their passengers and the tours they took joined a series of natural and human-caused tragedies, a growing garbage bear problem, and a change in mental health management on the list of top local news items of the year.

The continued battle over tourism focused in part on noise caused by flightseeing tours. Debate centered on a ballot initiative circulated by a group called the Peace and Quiet Coalition, which accused helicopter and small plane operators, as well as the Juneau Assembly, of ignoring their concerns.

"I wish the assembly had addressed the issue in a meaningful way. This problem didn't happen overnight," said initiative backer Ray Preston.

Tour operators listed restricted routes and new equipment they voluntarily added as evidence of their efforts to lessen noise. Supporters also pointed to the economic benefits of tourism, referring to positive impacts of "the sounds of summer."


Mayor Sally Smith and Juneau Assembly member Marc Wheeler acknowledge the applause of supporters following their victories in Juneau's municipal election this fall.

The initiative lost 2-1 in October's city election.

"The operators are glad to see the community saw that Proposition 5 was not reasonable," said Friends of Aviation spokeswoman Lorene Kappler.

An attempt to mediate the dispute, funded by the city and the U.S. Forest Service, fell apart after a court ruled meetings had to be open to the public, including those with tape recorders.

Part of the ongoing debate over tourism was the continuing scrutiny of air and water emissions from the cruise ships bringing more than half a million tourists to town.

A government-industry working group formed, but despite corporate promises to reduce pollution, testing turned up high levels of potentially harmful bacteria in ship wastewater discharges. Fines also were levied when air emissions surpassed legal limits for opacity.

Gov. Tony Knowles took the industry to task in September for what he called "disgraceful" violations of pollution standards.

"This is unacceptable and we're going to do something about it," he said in a Marine Park speech with a ship in the background. "You will obey Alaska's laws and respect our values."

Cruise officials met with Knowles and others two months later and reached an agreement to monitor discharges. Some details remain to be worked out.

"The governor didn't ask for a blank check and we didn't write one," said Dean Brown, executive vice president of Princess Cruises and chairman of the North West CruiseShip Association.


Sent to prison: Joel Taplin, right, listens in court as his attorney, Louis Menendez presents an argument in Taplin's trial for killing a Juneau biologist while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Also, before Congress adjourned, a measure calling for stronger regulation of cruise ship sewage and wastewater passed.

The pros and cons of tourism were major issues in the October city elections, which brought changes to city hall. Candidates, who were generally critical of the flightseeing noise initiative, debated the best way to manage tourism impacts and bring together a community divided over the issue.

Winners included Mayor Sally Smith and assembly member Marc Wheeler, who were seen as more critical of the industry than their opponents. Some said the election, plus the departure of assembly member Tom Garrett, a tourism backer, brought more industry critics to the panel, said assembly member Frankie Pillifant.

"The first thing I thought was, 'Wow now there's a majority on the assembly that's willing to discuss the things I bring up," Pillifant said after the election.

No significant new tourism proposals, however, have emerged from the panel since the October vote.

In addition to the assembly, Juneau elected school board members, including high school senior Daniel Peterson. A measure paying for half of $40 million in improvements to Bartlett Regional Hospital also passed, as did one funding $7.7 million in repairs to local schools.

Another factor in the election was an advisory measure on the best solution to improving access to Juneau. By a close margin, voters favored enhanced ferry service over a road to Skagway. Some saw the sentiment as a factor in the loss of two strong road backers, mayoral candidate Jamie Parsons and assembly candidate PeggyAnn McConnochie, to ferry supporters Smith and Wheeler.


Jobs on the line: Jon Faine, an emergency services clinician, makes a point to Juneau City Manager Dave Palmer, not pictured, during a stormy meeting at the citys new police station earlier this year. Palmer was explaining why jobs were being cut at Juneaus Health and Social Services Department.

Gov. Knowles, who decided against building the road in January, was pleased with the outcome of the ballot question, said spokesman Bob King.

"He thinks that this was an important vote because it sends a clear message that Juneau residents support a modern fast-ferry system," King said.

Whatever Juneau's opinion, the Legislature was reluctant to back Knowles' plans. While money was allowed for a Juneau-to-Sitka fast ferry, plans for one connecting Juneau, Skagway and Haines remained on the back burner.

The ferry system faced other problems, including a June fire on the vessel Columbia that knocked it out until next spring. About 500 passengers and crew members were evacuated safely from Chatham Strait, southwest of Juneau, and the 418-foot mainline ferry was towed to Auke Bay.

Although the fire was confined to a relatively small area of the control room, damaged wiring needed to be replaced. The repair work is expected to run about $1.5 million, part of a $10.5 million renovation package.

While no one was hurt in the ferry fire, other tragedies took Juneau lives this year, including two murders.

A January robbery on Village Street led to the beating death of Kenneth Thomas, 36. Eleven months later, Ronald Smith, 34, and Rey Joel Soto, 21, went to trial on charges of second-degree murder, as well as assault and robbery charges. A jury found them guilty on all counts. Among the evidence presented was Thomas' blood on Soto's jeans, and a bloody bat found in the accused men's car. Sentencing is scheduled for February.

The victim in the second murder was Daniel Brux-Brown, a 36-year-old logging and mine worker found beaten to death in his downtown apartment in May. The killer was never found, although the investigation remains open.


Being repaired: The Columbia ferry is towed after a fire in June. The ship is expected to be out of service until spring.

Two drunken drivers were convicted of killing three Juneau men this year.

In May, Massachusetts teacher Joel Taplin was sentenced to prison for recklessly causing the death of Auke Bay biologist Harry Richard Carlson the previous year. Police testified Taplin failed field sobriety tests and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.142 percent, above the legal limit, after his car struck Carlson on Back Loop Road.

In November, oilfield worker Michael Glaser was sentenced to more than two decades in prison for the April drunken driving deaths of DIPAC founder Ladd Macaulay and state investments official Martin Richard of Juneau. Alaska State Troopers said Glaser had a blood-alcohol level of 0.258 percent - more than two-and-a-half times Alaska's legal limit for intoxication after the crash on the highway between Seward and Anchorage.

The deaths inspired the formation of a local Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter and lent support to a statewide effort to drop the DWI limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent.

Other year 2000 tragedies included the drowning death of a mother and son after they fell through the ice on a North Douglas pond last winter, a summer jet ski accident that left a teen dead, a fall Fish Creek Road car crash that killed another teen and a plane with two on board that went missing on a trip to Young Bay last week.

The year 2000 was also dangerous for Juneau bears, with more killed after run-ins with people or garbage than in recent years. Some 1,000 bear-related calls went to the city's police department and Chief Mel Personett worried about the operational and fiscal weight of bear duty.

"We're the people saddled with the failures with the trash problem," he said.

Bears also played a role in the mayor's race. As a condition of bowing out and throwing his support to eventual winner Smith last fall, photojournalist Mark Farmer won her support for a garbage-bear control effort. Farmer, who wants compulsory use of bear-proof garbage containers and a year-round, state-trained bear-control officer, now heads a city panel charged with recommending solutions to the assembly.

In other city business, City Manager Dave Palmer began the process of dismantling the city's Health and Social Services Department in February, citing problems with the department's red ink, looming deficits and competition with private mental-health care providers.

The department's mental health workers and their clients initially expressed outrage and dismay when first told about the plan. Some said the city was moving ahead without a plan at all. But the city forged ahead and by early December officials were claiming success. The Juneau Recovery Hospital became part of city-owned Bartlett Regional Hospital, and other services were handed to Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc. and Juneau Youth Services.

But the principal rationale for getting the city out of the mental health business - an excess of red ink - may not be going away for a while. City subsidies for services are hovering at about the same level now as they did before the department got the ax.

"The expectation is that the city's contribution will decline over time," said Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce.

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