Anti-prison campaign ads anger supporters

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

Supporters of a proposed private prison are hitting the airways in support of the 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security facility on which Kenai Peninsula Borough residents will vote Oct. 2. They are also hitting back at radio ads paid for by the newly formed anti-prison ballot group, Public Safety Yes -- Private Prison No.

Concerned Citizens For Responsible Economic Development, CCFRED, has taken the lead as the official pro-prison group. However, the support is bolstered by Kenai Natives Association and Cornell Companies of Alaska, both of which are involved in the effort to build the prison on KNA land just north of Kenai.

"We started this a year ago and are doing everything we can to make sure this private prison goes through," said Mike Slezak, chief operating officer for Kenai Natives Association.

KNA is a member of a Cornell-led team selected by the borough to plan and promote the prison project.

Asked if KNA's effort was a part of that being orchestrated by CCFRED, Slezak said, "We're not working against CCFRED. We have like interests."

"We're trying to promote (the prison) because it will do a lot of good for a lot of people," Slezak said.

KNA's ads, according to Slezak, are an effort to "keep the truth and not have it distorted."

Cornell Companies of Alaska is also picking up the tab for radio spots encouraging a "yes" vote on Oct. 2.

"We are paying for some of our own ads," said Paul Doucette, the public relations director for Cornell Companies Inc., in Houston, Texas. "Obviously, we and those who support the facility in Kenai are working together. Our principal interest is mostly in setting the facts straight."

"Right now we're in the last couple weeks of this issue," he said. "As a company that thinks (the prison) really does have a significant economic benefit to the community, we think the people of Kenai need to make the decision based on the facts."

Doucette, who plans to travel to Alaska prior to the Oct. 2 election, said, "We are willing to meet with anybody, to talk to anybody, to answer questions concerning our current operations in other areas of the country and, if we are fortunate to run a prison in Kenai, how that prison might operate and what that prison might look like."

Blaine Gilman, attorney for KNA and campaign manager for CCFRED, raised concern over the ad currently being run by Public Safety Yes -- Private Prison No, a group chaired by Jim Ashton, assistant business manager for Public Employees Local 71. (See related story, page A-1.)

"The ad uses lies to play on public fears," Gilman said, characterizing the approach as "serious fear tactics" and "mud slinging."

Pointing to the ad's reference that prisoners being released from the proposed prison would stay on the peninsula, Gilman said, "They know that the inmates are not released from medium-security prisons like the one planned here. Inmates are transferred to minimum-security prisons for the last six months to a year of their sentence."

He also reacted to the ad's description of the process in Juneau as "fishy."

"This ad is intentionally false and misleading," he said. "This is a real disservice to the public and the people of Kenai. ... Let's debate the issues, but let's stick to the truth. Lying in campaign ads should not be tolerated."

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, also took exception to the ad. Chenault sponsored legislation that opened the door for the Alaska Department of Corrections to consider placement of a private prison in the borough. To help ensure passage of the legislation, the borough hired Mark Higgins to lobby specifically for successful passage of Chenault's legislation and HB 149 was signed into law by Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles on May 29.

"I'm getting tired of personal attacks on me and what I perceive as my integrity," Chenault said. "Basically, (the ads) start out with unsubstantiated rumors and they pretty much end with unsubstantiated rumors."

"This piece of legislation moved through the system as any other piece has to move through it. It was in front of countless committees. There were countless opportunities for the public to comment on not only the process, but the legislation. In their ad they state that it was fishy, but the bill was overwhelmingly supported by the legislators.

"I'm not a real happy camper," Chenault said. "We all know that there's good and bad in any project, but to basically come out and intentionally mislead the public is doing a real disservice to the public and the residents of the Kenai Peninsula."

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