Assembly action short-circuits initiative drive; sponsors vow battle

Prison question to be put to vote

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2001

Pulling an unexpected card from the deck, the entire nine-member Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly co-sponsored an ordinance that, if passed, will let borough voters in October either open or shut the door on a private prison for the peninsula. It also may kill a local initiative petition that seeks to kick private for-profit prison operators out of the borough completely.

"In putting this ordinance together with (Assembly President Tim) Navarre, we looked at what the assembly would do and, lo and behold, our prognosis was correct. We got nine members signed on," said assembly member Bill Popp.

Popp and Navarre, both of Kenai, were the original sponsors of the ordinance introduced during Tuesday evening's assembly meeting.

"I can't see where anybody either for or against this project can complain about giving voters the final say whether to go forward or not on this project," Popp said.

The ordinance caught Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, and Milli Martin, of Homer, off guard. They were poised to introduce a resolution Tuesday night that would have given voters an advisory vote. Sprague said he first became aware of the ordinance during committee meetings Tuesday afternoon. He and Martin agreed to pull their resolution from the agenda in favor of Popp and Navarre's ordinance.

"I found the introduction very interesting in that I had perhaps incorrectly believed that the initial sponsors had some reservations about even an advisory vote," Sprague said. "The ordinance makes (the public vote) binding and I find that even preferable to what I was asking."

Popp expressed belief that the proposed prison -- an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security prison -- warranted a binding vote by the public.

"If the borough assembly gives up responsibility in a representative form of government, then it should give it up completely and put the decision in the hands of the voters," Popp said.

Sprague had concerns with the ordinance's shortened hearing request. However, Popp said he didn't feel hearings in addition to the single hearing scheduled for July 10 were beneficial.

"The whole point is that nothing new is going to come out on this," he said.

In the memo accompanying the ordinance, Popp offered an additional explanation for the shortened hearing.

"Alaska Statute 29.26.170 provides that if the assembly adopts substantially the same measure as is contained in an initiative petition, then the petition is void and the matter initiated may not be placed before the voters," Popp wrote. "It is my intent that this ordinance replace the pending initiative petition and still provide the voters with an opportunity to vote on the question."

Toward that end, Popp wrote that the shortened hearing allowed for the petitioners to be notified of the binding question on the ballot, "thereby saving the effort of duplicate processes."

According to James Price, who heads up the initiative petition effort, the petition's 20 co-sponsors are finding it easy to get signatures within a timetable that would allow for inclusion on the Oct. 2 ballot.

Price offered a different interpretation of Popp's motives, calling the ordinance an effort to sidetrack the initiative and to put Navarre's and Popp's "pet project to a vote of the people." He characterized the ordinance as "damage control," and said it was "too little, too late."

"This action should have been carried out initially, before wasting our funds for a project that primarily benefits special interests and would negatively affect the Kenai Peninsula forever," Price said.

Mako Haggerty, a petition co-sponsor from Homer, suggested the assembly's actions might indicate second thoughts about pursuing construction and operation of the prison.

"I don't completely understand the ramifications of this thing," Haggerty said, "But maybe this is a sign that the assembly is reconsidering their interest in going ahead with the prison."

In order for the ordinance to stop the petition's sponsors in their tracks, state statute requires that it be "substantially the same measure" as that contained in the initiative petition.

"We think it is substantially the same in that we are referencing private for-profit directly," said Popp of discussions he reported having with borough attorney Colette Thompson. "The good thing about this for the petition folks is that we are guaranteeing that they will be on the October ballot."

However, both Price and Popp admitted a distinction between the ordinance and the initiative petition. The ordinance focuses on the proposed prison as described in legislation recently signed into law that authorizes the Alaska Department of Corrections to negotiate with the borough for additional prison space.

"The circulating initiative petition would prohibit all for-profit private prison operators in the borough," Popp's memo stated.

Price said, "Our ballot initiative prohibits any and all private for-profit prison operation within the Kenai Peninsula Borough. No wasted taxpayer expenditures for the benefit of private prison profiteers. No more battles against our own borough, which spends our money against us, for (its) own speculative ventures."

Popp closed the door on a cooperative effort between the assembly and Price.

"I had no interest in working with Mr. Price once I saw the initiative petition that he was putting forward," he said. "I think his petition is unconstitutional because it's so wide open and because of the way that it identifies one particular type of business."

Popp also said he believes it raises antitrust issues and opens the door for potential lawsuits.

"I think eventually it would have resulted in litigation if it had gotten on the ballot and passed," Popp said. "I'm not claiming who would sue over it, but I just have a sneaking suspicion that an action would have been brought against it."

Speaking for the petition's sponsors, Price said, "Our group has and will fight the borough to eliminate the possibility of any private for-profit prison located anywhere on the Kenai Peninsula anytime in the future," Price said, adding that the ordinance introduced Tuesday night is a "smokescreen that attempts to hide the ugly truth of business as usual involving special interest politics."

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey put a positive spin on the ordinance.

"The main thing is to get information out to the people so they can make a decision. That's the major emphasis that now needs to be stressed," he said.

Carey and the Soldotna City Council have gone on record as opposing the construction and operation of a private prison within the borough.

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