With the future of Alaska's first private prison to be determined by Kenai Peninsula Borough voters in October, it is guaranteed that proponents and opponents will be busy.
But, as with any ballot issue, the borough's involvement is limited until voters have their say.
"They can proceed with the project as planned, but cannot advocate either side of the proposition officially," said borough attorney Colette Thompson. "We won't do anything binding until the decision is made by the voters."
According to borough code, "the use of public moneys, or facilities, equipment or supplies purchased with public moneys, and services of public employees in kind, to promote the passage of ballot propositions, including public expenditures, appropriations or bond issues, is prohibited." The code defines "promote" as an attempt to influence the voters.
Exceptions, however, include providing informational material that "fully presents information needed by the public to make an informed vote," participating in discussions relating to the project, the use of borough-owned facilities for meetings of groups representing either side of the issue, arranging for meetings where the project is fairly presented by opponents and proponents, designating an area for the posting of materials relating to the issue and the constitutional right of each employee to express personal views.
Although borough Mayor Dale Bagley has interviewed applicants for the position of prison project manager, it is unlikely that anyone would be hired prior to October.
"We're frankly still at that point of deciding whether we should continue trying to hire someone for the position or whether we should delay the process until after the October election," said Jeff Sinz, borough finance director. "This is one of those things that at this point seems unlikely that we'd be able to hire someone and have them on board much before the election in any case ... . It's one of those things that's slipping sort of by it's own free will."
Like Thompson, Sinz said the borough administration is moving forward with the project; however, they are mindful of the potential impact of the vote and "certainly trying to be responsible about incurring any additional out-of-pocket costs knowing that the vote could essentially kill the project, at least in the short run."
Neal Duperron of Kenai is one of the applicants for the manager position. Duperron, who is employed at Kenai Chrysler, worked on the staff of Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who introduced legislation authorizing the Alaska Department of Corrections to negotiate with the borough for development of the prison.
"I haven't been interviewed yet and have no indication what to expect," Duperron said. "But they probably won't hire anybody until after the October ballot.
Two ballot groups have filed specifically for the prison ballot measure, according to Therese Bartlett, group coordinator for Alaska Public Offices Commis-sion. According to Campaign Disclosure Law, the groups must file periodic reports with APOC, the first one due 30 days before the election, and identify all political communications with a "paid for by" statement.
Both groups have been visible lately at area community events. One of them, Concerned Citizens For Responsible Economic Development, recently commissioned a poll of some 300-peninsula residents.
Kenai attorney Blaine Gilman, campaign manager for CCFRED, said a volunteer and organizational meeting is scheduled for sometime this week. Gilman represents the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, which is one of the principals of Corrections Group North, that along with Cornell Corrections Inc. is behind the private prison.
"We have been having meetings with lots of volunteers," Gilman said. "We're trying to do a grass-roots campaign with as many volunteers involved as possible."
Gilman would not comment on the results of the recent poll. However, Duperron, a CCFRED volunteer, said, "I know the poll that they did was pretty even, but I'm not sure of the percentage. No matter what side you're on, it's going to have to be a pretty organized effort on everybody's part."
James Price, contact person for Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons, said that group also is organizing volunteers and distributing informational literature. He was encouraged by voter interest in an initiative petition that could have forced the prison to be included on the October ballot, but was short-circuited when the borough assembly decided in July to let voters decide the prison's fate.
"We're not funded by any deep pockets," Price said. "That's the difference between Cornell and our citizen group."
Cornell Corrections Inc., the team lead selected by the borough assembly in February to plan and promote the prison project, is busy taking its message to the public. Marvin Wiebe, senior vice president, and Michael Gilliland, business development southwest coordinator for Cornell, already met with the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and will speak at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce weekly luncheon Tuesday. They also will meet with the Soldotna City Council at 6 p.m. Wednesday and with the Soldotna Rotary at noon Thursday.
"Essentially, I'm here to get information out about the company -- how we operate across the country with our values, how we would plan to become good neighbors and be active in the community as this prison project goes through," Gilliland said.
"We want to try to dispel some of the misinformation or lack of information that's out there at this point ... . Basically, my job is to be a resource person and try to educate those with the facts that may not know otherwise.
"The main thing is that we want to make a difference. If we didn't think we could make a difference and there's that much opposition, then I guess we wouldn't be here, but that's what the vote's about."
He said Cornell would support CCFRED's activities.
APOC's Bartlett said both proponents and opponents of the prison "could work through or donate to" one of the two ballot groups and must register with APOC if general operating funds are used to promote or oppose the ballot measure or if an individual or group contributes more than $500.
"A company like Cornell or any group could take out an independent advertisement, and then they would file a one-page form of independent expenditures," Bartlett said.
That report must be filed within 10 days of making the expenditure.
"At this point," he said, "none are entered into the system."
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