Juneau Assembly incumbents, hopefuls spar over issues

Seven candidates for Juneau Assembly spar at a Juneau League of Women Voters candidate forum at City Hall on Sept. 14, 2017.

Seven candidates for Juneau Assembly spar at a Juneau League of Women Voters candidate forum at City Hall on Thursday. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

Seven candidates competing for three seats on the Juneau Assembly found a lot of common ground during a forum hosted by the Juneau League of Women Voters. But the audience’s questions managed to tease out some differences in policy and perspective.

In their opening remarks, two of the three candidates chose to focus on law and order.

“I’m tired of not being able to go downtown, without being harassed and wanting money and being pushy enough to follow me around, yelling at me,” said Chuck Collins.

“I’ve never seen the crime like it is. I’ve never had to step over inebriates to get into the City and Borough of Juneau offices. We’re the capital – and we want to stay the capital,” said Loretto Jones.

Both are vying for the downtown District 1 seat.

Rob Edwardson, who is challenging incumbent Debbie White in District 2, had a lighter message.

“Many of the people of Juneau fear homelessness, they fear the opioid addiction, they fear no available housing,” Edwardson said. “The Juneau that my family came to love 27 years ago, Juneau overcame fear by working together, not by fearing each other.”

Write-in candidate Andy Hughes is challenging areawide incumbent Maria Gladziszewski. His platform is fiscal conservatism.

“Juneau’s budget has been balanced the last two years running with our savings,” Hughes said. “It’s not a sustainable course of action. This cannot go on. If elected, I will oppose the use of savings to kick the budget down the road.”

But while Hughes said he wanted balanced budgets, he also argued strongly for a broader sales tax exemption for seniors. Hughes, Edwardson and Collins are backing a push by a seniors group that wants to restore the blanket sales tax exemption for residents over 65.

Hughes said many seniors are now shopping online and paying no sales tax at all.

“Taking the exemption away fails to recognize the value of the senior citizens in our community in terms of income and resources that they possess,” he said.

But incumbent Maria Gladziszewski said the blanket exemption that had existed until last year wasn’t working and had to be narrowed to only essentials like food, electricity and heating fuel.

“The numbers that were provided by the finance director, just the demographics, it was unsustainable. I’m worried about the affordability for young families.”

Challenger Chuck Collins was skeptical of the city’s numbers that said the old exemption would’ve cost $1.8 million last year and increased each year as Juneau’s population gets grayer.

“Whether it was sustainable or not sustainable it’d be hard to tell by the analysis that was done on it,” Collins said.

That’s when incumbent Jesse Kiehl, who also voted to narrow seniors’ sales tax exemptions, fired back.

“Chuck is straight, dead flat straight wrong about the numbers. Absolutely, the money came and I’ll show him the spreadsheets it’s not hard to read,” Kiehl said.

Incumbent Debbie White said she analyzed the demographics of the roughly 400 people that moved out of Juneau last year and they weren’t seniors.

“Most of the people that were leaving were in between the ages of 25 and 55 and they were taking their children with them,” White said.

Another wedge issue was whether the city should pursue purchasing the Alaska Electric Light & Power Company, whose parent corporation is being bought by a Canadian utility.

The city has expressed interest in local ownership but the Ontario-based Hydro One has so far rebuffed its overtures. Still, the Juneau Assembly has solicited a professional financial study into acquiring the company.

“I don’t know why we’re doing a study on buying a company that’s not for sale,” said Rob Edwardson.

His opponent Debbie White said it was worth looking into. She noted that the power company’s acquisition by a Canadian company will need approval from state and federal regulators including the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

“If we wanted to pursue it, and we filed a protest with the RCA, that sale would not go through,” White said.

Both incumbent Maria Gladziszewski and her write-in challenger Andy Hughes were cool to the idea of the city owning a power company, though they didn’t rule it out.

And of course there was the road. Debbie White, Chuck Collins and Andy Hughes spoke strongly in favor of the stalled Juneau Access Project. Jesse Kiehl, Loretto Jones, Maria Gladziszewski and Rob Edwardson said it wasn’t workable.

The will be another candidates forum on Monday, Sept. 25. Election Day is Oct. 3, although early voting has already begun at City Hall.

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