Unanimously approved plan to put question on ballot ends initiative drive

Assembly changes course on prison

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

Take it to the people was the clear message at Tuesday's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.

The subject was the 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private prison being proposed for the Kenai Peninsula. The direction came from the public and the nine-member assembly.

Jumping in front of a grass-roots effort to hand the prison's fate to borough voters in October was an ordinance "substantially the same" as an initiative petition gathering support throughout the peninsula. The ordinance was originally introduced at the June 19 meeting; a substitute introduced on Tuesday contained wording that mirrored the initiative effort.

"This has all happened so quickly and I'm not a legal expert," said James Price, of Nikiski, who spearheaded the initiative petition drive to put the prison's fate in the hand s of voters in the October election.

Price offered his support of the ordinance, saying it offered an opportunity for voters to make their voices heard.

"This is a rather interesting development," said assembly member Pete Sprague, of Soldotna. "You and your group have really not had time to discuss this."

Realizing that passage of the substitute would end the petition effort, Price said his support didn't mean he was abandoning his position.

"We have the signatures, and we can move the initiative forward," Price said. "We are prepared to continue to fight until we have reason not to. But either way, the question will go forward. It's a matter of whether the borough wants to promote the question or whether the initiative will."

Speaking on behalf of his clients in the Public Safety Employees Association, Anchorage attorney Joe Josephson, a former state senator, said the substitute "cured his major concern."

"What is desired are even-handed opportunities for borough residents to decide," Josephson said.

Representing Kenai Natives Association, owners of the land being considered as a site for the prison, Kenai attorney Blaine Gilman also supported the substitute.

"The vote is important for the sake of clarity," Gilman said. "I believe when the public is heard about the project, that they will resoundingly support it. Let's have this vote. Pass this ordinance and move on to the next step."

And that's exactly what the assembly did, giving unanimous support to the ordinance substitute.

Calling the action a "face-saving measure" by the assembly, Price called passage of the ordinance "a success."

Public feedback also was the focus of a proposal, sponsored by Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, to develop a prison steering committee. Passage came after some tweaking by Kenai assembly member Bill Popp.

One change replaced "steering" with "advisory."

"The ordinance itself absolutely spoke to the fact that it would be an advisory group, advising the assembly and the administration," Popp said.

Another change concerned membership. As written, the ordinance called for one member each from the nine assembly districts, law enforcement, the Kenai Peninsula College, a Native organization, a chamber of commerce, the construction industry, borough administration, the school district and three members of the public.

"One of the areas that I see is absent is someone from the health-care industry," testified Diana Zirul, president of the Central Peninsula General Hospital board of directors. "When you bring a project of this nature into the community, it will have a tremendous impact."

Zirul's insight resulted in the addition of a representative from the medical field.

"Quite frankly, (the membership) could change again if we identify other sectors of the community that need to be available as a resource," Popp said.

Vicki Pate, of Nikiski, called formation of the committee a case of "putting the cart before the horse."

"First, determine if the people of this area actually want a prison," Pate told the assembly. "My best guess is that those people (chosen for the committee) will be used to lobby for your position."

Assembly members Sprague and Grace Merkes, of Sterling, also expressed concerns about timing.

"I believe this is premature," Sprague said, adding that formation of the committee prior to the October election "colors public perception."

Merkes said the time for the committee is after the project is approved.

However, Ron Long, assembly member from Seward, said the sooner the committee is formed, the better.

"We've heard for almost a year now of the public wanting to be involved," Long said. "We have before us an opportunity for the public to be involved, and now the perception is that once they're on the committee, that they've gone over to 'the dark side.'"

Chris Moss, representing Homer, agreed that the action was premature, but said there is no potential for influencing public opinion if committee activities did not begin until after the the public has decided the prison project's future.

The committee's start date was to changed Oct. 15, and the ordinance passed 7-to-2, with Sprague and Merkes voting in opposition.

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