Borough Mayor John Williams' decision last week to join a statewide coalition of Alaskans pledging to fight a pair of clean-water ballot initiatives they say would cripple the state's mining industry raised questions about how, whether or when borough officials should take stands on major projects or use the power of office to influence public opinion.
The ballot initiatives, the Alaska Clean Water Initiative, and the similar Alaska Clean Water Initiative III, would effectively ban most discharges from mining operations to waters consumed by humans or that support salmon habitat. Arising mostly out of opposition to Pebble Mine, advocates argue regulating mine wastes is necessary to protect renewable resources threatened by mining's very nature.
Opponents say if either initiative were to become law, mining even recreational mining could come to a halt.
The initiatives are currently facing litigation and it is not clear yet if either will make it to the ballot. They remain in limbo for now in Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell's office.
In a lengthy interview Tuesday covering larger issues surrounding how, if and whether a municipal administration or assembly should assume an advocacy role for any project, particularly large ones expected to have major economic impact, Williams spoke about his decision to join the anti-initiatives group Alaskans Against the Mining Shutdown.
Williams said knowing people he trusted were on board with the anti-initiative effort helped. They include Arliss Sturgulewski, former Gov. Bill Sheffield and others, many of whom he's known for decades and whose opinions he respects. So did studying the initiative language, which he found broad-reaching in effect.
"Regardless of what the other side says, this is an issue that could shut down mining in Alaska. I've been taken to task by a couple of people because of statements I've made, but this could shut down mining," Williams said.
Enacting either initiative would necessarily cause a major overhaul of statutory regulation and law regarding the entire mining business, he added.
Williams predicted some issues would be decided in the court of public opinion, while other were destined for civil court where constitutional and statutory authority issues would likely be considered, because the initiatives would impose "a blanket rule" affecting procedures for 67 different state and federal permits a recipe for chaos, he said.
Current polls indicate 54 percent of Alaskans favor the clean water initiatives, Williams said. He fears those in the majority are largely uninformed and acting "from the gut."
"I can unequivocally say the other side (majority) has not analytically looked at this," he said, adding that the minority was better informed.
Challenged on the absoluteness of that statement, Williams backed off a bit, acknowledging there were likely many Alaskans siding with the anti-initiative group who haven't studied the details either.
"I'm hoping the 46 percent has done a little research," he said. "Sometimes you find in questions of this nature that the minority is more informed than the majority, at least at the beginning."
For him, the initiatives are clearly intended to impose very restrictive measures on the mining industry. Even recreational mining conducted collectively by a few people working "Sunday afternoon" claims could run afoul of provisions governing operations affecting 640 acres or more. Build a few facilities, put in a road or two, run some power, and store some tailings and "it wouldn't take long ... to suck up 640 acres," Williams said.
Under municipal law, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly sets borough policy, not the mayor. Williams insisted his advocacy is not policy and that as an elected official he has the right to voice an opinion of a political nature, and to speak out publicly against the initiatives. He won't oppose their appearing on the ballot, but will urge Alaskans to vote no, he said, adding that no public money would be spent on such efforts, he said.
State law generally bars governments from spending taxpayer dollars to advocate for or against an initiative, whether that initiative is local or statewide, though they may disseminate nonpartisan information at taxpayer expense. However, state law does provide an avenue past that prohibition.
According to Borough Attorney Colette Thompson, advocacy policies meant to influence the outcome of an election are acceptable if the governing body votes to appropriate money to the cause. That's because the public would be involved.
"To appropriate funds, they'd have to hold public hearings," Thompson said.
All that being said, it turns out borough code imposes a prohibition stricter than state law. It flatly bars the use of public money or facilities to promote passage or defeat of a ballot proposition. Ironically, it was imposed by an initiative in 1984. It seems unlikely an assembly would agree to waive the provision or repeal the law.
Still, Williams acknowledged his decision to join the group has generated some negative public reaction. He said a woman confronted him saying it appeared he didn't want the public to vote on the matter.
"I said, 'No, I don't care if you vote on this. I'm saying I'm going to vote on this in a particular manner,'" Williams said.
Asked if the time he might spend advocating against the initiatives could be construed as using borough time for political business, Williams admitted that it might be hard to separate. But it is not altogether unusual for the mayor to espouse a point of view, even a political one, while still representing the borough.
For instance, he's addressed the Alaska Resource Development Council and promoted a gas line. He's argued that the University of Alaska should build an energy school.
"Does that mean I'm spending borough money on behalf of the university or advancing one of their causes? Probably," he said. "Is it good for the community? Probably."
While acknowledging that assembly members might disagree with his reasoning on the mining issues, as he sees it, he's freely engaging in personal advocacy, not fostering an official borough policy. Were he a hired municipal manager instead of an elected mayor, he still could speak his mind, he noted. Consequences, however, might include a pink slip if the governing body seriously disagreed.
No doubt his status as a municipal executive gives his voice more weight, in this case for one side in a divisive debate. Whether that's "proper" from a political standpoint is unanswered question. Perhaps a future election will decide that.
Williams said there are examples of public officials advocating for particular projects, such as Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker, who has been a vocal advocate for a pipeline to Valdez and construction there of an LNG plant.
"Does that benefit us over here? Heck no," Williams said. "Is Fairbanks working against the Kenai Peninsula (which has taken an official position advocating a line to tidewater at Cook Inlet and an expanded LNG plant here)? Respectfully, yes, because they're denying us an opportunity to involve ourselves in a major economic development program. Is he spending his money wisely for everyone in the state? No. Does his assembly back him entirely? No."
Williams said it was possible, though unlikely, that his mind could change. It would take some pretty heavy evidence, he said.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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