2011 Juneau year in review

2011 in the Capital City was marked by political bickering in the halls of state government, an unusual amount of turnover on the Juneau Assembly, and tragedy for two families who lost loved ones too soon. Casey Kelly has more.


Political bickering
The year began with Governor Sean Parnell introducing legislation to cut taxes on oil companies. The bill narrowly passed the House. But a skeptical Senate held onto it, leading the Governor to decry what he called “Do nothing Senators.” The bill will begin the 2012 session in the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, chaired by Juneau Senator Dennis Egan.

For the first time in state history, the regular session was adjourned by the Governor and not by legislators. With the clock winding down on the 90th day, and the House and Senate at an impasse over budgets, both chambers asked Parnell to take the unprecedented step of using his constitutional authority to end the session. He did so on April 17th, calling for a month-long special session starting the following day.

“I acted to adjourn the mess, focus us on just a few pieces of legislation that I think we can come together on,” said Parnell.

Lawmakers adopted the spending plans, but left another issue unresolved. The Alaska Coastal Management program was popular in communities, where it gave residents input into construction projects along the state’s vast coastline. But industry groups found it burdensome, and Parnell and House Republicans fought efforts to give citizens a voice.

In June, just days before the program was set to close, lawmakers returned to Juneau for another special session in an attempt to save it. But the bill failed in the House.

This fall, a group led by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho unveiled a citizens’ initiative to re-establish the coastal management program. The Alaska Sea Party is currently collecting signatures, and Botelho says they have support from communities around the state.

“We’re interested in, of course, the process which allows for voices at the local level to be heard,” said Botelho.

To mine or not to mine?
Whether or not to promote re-opening the AJ Mine was perhaps the most controversial issue tackled by the Juneau Assembly in 2011. The city owns part of the old mine, which sits atop Juneau’s only year-round drinking water source in Last Chance Basin. In May, an advisory committee appointed by Mayor Botelho delivered a report to the assembly, outlining conditions that should be met prior to any mine development. Committee member Gregg Erickson captured the divisive nature of the debate.

“Seemed to me the public was clearly split on this and that the one thing that most people agreed on was that we should do everything we can to protect our water supply,” Erickson said.

The Assembly plans to make an initial go/no-go decision on the mine sometime in 2012. In the meantime a study of the city’s water system is underway.

Tragedy
In September, tragedy struck at the Kensington Mine, 45 miles north of Juneau. Joe Tagaban, who grew up in the Capital City, died after being struck by small rock and debris from an underground blast. It was the first fatality at the mine, which went into operation in June 2010.

Tagaban’s mother, Sandy, called her son “the ultimate big brother” and said the family had no regrets about his career.

“We valued the work that Joey was doing and we know that he valued it so much, and it’s important to us that we honor the work that he was doing,” she said.

Meanwhile, in July, another Juneau family experienced tragedy thousands of miles from home, when 19-year-old Kevin Thornton was savagely beaten and later died while visiting friends in Arkansas.

“It was completely random violence,” said Hot Spring County Sheriff’s Investigator Phillip Calhoun.

Thornton was a 2010 graduate of Thunder Mountain High School. He’s survived by his parents, Bill and Darlene, and his sister Katie. Three teenage boys have been charged with his murder.

Assembly shuffle
It was musical chairs for the CBJ Assembly. Longtime members Jonathan Anderson and Bob Doll both moved out of state, giving up their seats before their terms expired. In May, the Assembly appointed Katherine Eldemar to Anderson’s seat. But she served only one meeting before resigning. Eldemar was replaced by Mal Menzies, while former Assemblyman Peter Freer was appointed to Doll’s seat. Botelho received assurances from Menzies and Freer that they would not seek election when their appointed terms were up.

In the fall municipal election, Carlton Smith, Jesse Kiehl and former Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker won seats. Voters rejected an assembly proposal to exempt Juneau public officials from state financial disclosure rules, as well as a citizens’ initiative to implement a plastic bag tax. Voters OK’d money for a new turf field and school energy improvements.

Looking ahead
In 2012, two Juneau lawmakers will likely be getting used to new legislative districts. If the state Redistricting Board’s plan sticks, Representative Beth Kerttula and Senator Dennis Egan will be representing Petersburg in addition to the Capital City.