Prison initiative loses big

Voters fail to see pros of cons

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Private prison proponents can forget about building a prison in the Kenai Peninsula Borough -- at least any time soon.

With all precincts reporting, unofficial counts showed 8,054 voters -- approximately 74 percent -- opposed Proposition 1, which would have allowed the borough to go forward to contract for the operation of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private, for-profit prison. About 26 percent of the voters, or 2,893, cast a "Yes" vote in support of continued investigation of the project's feasibility.

Two ballot groups led the opposition, Public Safety Yes-Private Prison No and Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons.

"Sounds like we at least put it off for two years," said Jim Ashton, chair of Public Safety Yes-Private Prison No, referring to the vote's two-year limitation. His group was formed by Public Employees Local 71.

"I always felt comfortable that if we had a good voter turnout, we would prevail," said James Price, who chaired Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons. "This tells me that our legislators and our borough are out of touch with the voters."

Price led a grass-roots effort to place the issue on the Oct. 2 ballot. Assembly members Pete Sprague of Soldotna and Milli Martin of Homer sought an advisory vote. However, those efforts were short-circuited when the assembly approved an ordinance co-authored by Tim Navarre and Bill Popp, both of Kenai, that gave voters a binding vote.

"I wasn't surprised at the margin of defeat," said Sprague of Tuesday's election results. "From the people I talked to, it seemed like it was going to be overwhelming, and it was. I believe that the public had a lot of issues with this proposal, and on a project like this, buy-in is crucial."

Last week, Popp blamed Price and Sprague for forcing a vote instead of taking "a reasoned approach and going through all the other major milestone steps." As results came in Tuesday evening, Popp said he was surprised by the wide margin separating the project supporters and opponents.

"Obviously, we will not be building a prison any time soon in the Kenai Peninsula Borough," he said.

Borough Mayor Dale Bagley also had supported exploration of the prison's feasibility.

"The prison's off the table," Bagley said. "As far as I'm concerned, the people voted on it, and that's the end of it."

Cornell Companies Inc. was selected by the borough to plan and promote the private prison. The Texas-based company also was in line to operate the facility, which had been proposed by the Kenai Natives Association more than a year ago.

"We're very disappointed," said Paul Doucette, public relations director for Cornell. "The Native association and borough people have been wonderful to work with. We certainly appreciate the support and partnership that we've developed with them."

With the Kenai Peninsula Borough out of the picture, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough is poised to pick up the private prison baton in an attempt to make up for impacts resulting from cutbacks in the timber industry.

"I think the majority of persons down here would push very hard to attract the facility," said Borough Mayor Jack Shay.

Shay said conversations with Cornell might be the next step. Cornell's Doucette said it might be a race to see who placed the phone call first, him or Shay.

The campaign for and against Proposition 1 was particularly divisive with proponents touting the private prison as an economic development opportunity and opponents characterizing it as a threat to public safety.

Only in four of the borough's smallest precincts did the "Yes" votes outnumber the "No" votes -- Hope, Nanwalek, Port Graham and Tyonek. In Hope, the vote favored Proposition 1 15 to 11; in Nanwalek, 3 to 1; in Port Graham, 16 to 9; and in Tyonek, 3 to 2.

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