Kenai assembly plans vote on prison

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

KENAI -- The entire nine-member Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is cosponsoring an ordinance that, if passed, will let borough voters in October either open or shut the door on a private prison for the peninsula.

The move also may short-circuit a local initiative petition that seeks to kick private prison operators out of the borough completely.

Assembly members Bill Popp and Tim Navarre, both of Kenai, were the original sponsors of the ordinance introduced during Tuesday evening's assembly meeting. They got the rest of the members to sign on as well.

''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.

Popp says the issues raised by the proposed 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security prison warranted a binding vote by the public.

In a memo accompanying the ordinance, Popp said it was his intention that the ordinance replace the pending initiative petition, since he says it offers substantially the same issue to the voters.

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

Price said Popp's ordinance was an effort to sidetrack the initiative. He characterized the ordinance as ''damage control,'' and said it was ''too little, too late.''

Mako Haggerty, a petition co-sponsor from Homer, said the assembly's actions might indicate second thoughts about pursuing the prison idea.

''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, state statute requires that it be ''substantially the same measure'' as that contained in the initiative petition.

However, both Price and Popp admit there's 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 states.

Popp said the initiative could also raise antitrust issues and open the door for potential lawsuits, since it bans one type of business.

''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 said.

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