Kenai City Council lukewarm on prison proposal

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

After nearly two hours of sometimes impassioned testimony, the Kenai City Council Wednesday night voted 4-2 to support "the concept" of a private prison -- with qualifications.

The council's resolution of support has four provisions it would expect to be achieved if the Oct. 2 private prison ballot measure, Proposition 1, is passed by the citizens in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The council supports the prison if:

n Satisfactory arrangements can be made regarding connection of the prison facility to the city's water and sewer systems;

n A thorough social, economic and financial feasibility study is completed prior to the final decision of whether to build the prison;

n That the feasibility study be reviewed and approved by the Kenai City Council and be made available to the general public by the Kenai Peninsula Borough on a boroughwide basis;

n A memorandum of agreement can be drawn up between the city of Kenai and the borough regarding the operation of the facility and its affect on the city of Kenai.

Jim Bookey, Joe Moore, Pat Porter and Duane Bannock voted in favor of the resolution, and Mayor John Williams and Vice Mayor Linda Swarner cast opposing votes.

"I will not lend my name to this issue and give it credibility," Williams said.

Swarner said she could not philosophically support the prison, especially with no feasibility study taken beforehand.

Porter said she supports it because it is economic development, something the citizenry has long clamored for, and because she said it is the council's obligation to inform the citizens about the issue and protect their interests.

Bookey said he supports it in part because he was wrong about the negative effects he thought Wildwood Correctional Facility -- the current prison -- would have on the community.

"I have no fear of the prison," he said.

Bannock, who first floated a pro-prison resolution in December and who has expressed his opinion many times, did not have much to say.

He expressed appreciation at how many people had attended the past three meetings and went over the provisions in the city's resolution.

Moore said he was proud the city of Kenai appeared to be the hinge the prison swung on.

Prison developers would like to see water and sewer to and from the prison be connected into the city's system, something the city must agree to.

"If the resolution doesn't pass, it would be detrimental to the overall proposition," he said.

"I don't want it killed; I want it studied."

Moore did say he had some concerns with the timing of the resolution.

"I have trouble with trying to influence voters, but I don't see any way around it. Our job is not to sit on the fence," he said.

Concern over influencing the outcome of the Oct. 2 vote was the main message of those residents testifying against the resolution.

Many, like James Price, head of the group Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons, are against a private prison on the peninsula at all.

"I encourage you to at least postpone your vote until after the election," he said. "Though I would encourage you not to support it at all."

Iola K. Banks, a retired teacher, said prisons should not be a function of private enterprise.

"This does not pass the smell test. This is dungeons for dollars," she said.

Former Kenai Natives Association President Diana Zirul also said the council should wait until the people have spoken on Oct. 2.

"The city of Kenai should not be used as a pawn," she said.

She said the prison idea was studied years ago by KNA, but that there are still many unanswered questions.

Current KNA vice president, Elsie Hendricks, a supporter of the prison, which would be built on KNA land, said a lot of research went into her group picking Cornell as its partner in seeking a prison.

Susan Wells, also on the KNA board, agreed, saying the project would provide sustainable jobs.

She said she hoped her two daughters and one son would find sustainable jobs and stay in Kenai.

However, Denise O'Connell, a KNA shareholder and a guard at Wildwood, said she would not want her children to follow in her footsteps.

"I wouldn't want my children to work where I do," she said. "I work there because I don't have an education."

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, said he believes private prisons are more efficient, and that's why public employee representatives are afraid of them. He also said the prison issue is not public versus private.

"We'll have a private prison in Arizona or we'll have one here," he said. "We will pay for a private prison no matter the vote."

Kenai architect Bill Kluge, who is part of the design team for the prison, said he is in favor of the proposal.

"You all have friends on both sides of this debate, as we all do," he said. "I support the prison. It's the kind of large economic development that we have not seen in a long time."

The council's resolution is not a binding agreement with the borough, KNA or Cornell. It is a wish list of what the city would like to see done if Proposition One passes.

The council could always rescind its support for the project if its conditions are not met.

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