What next for private prison?

Supporters, opponents ponder outcome of vote, future of project

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

The meaning of Tuesday's vote against a proposed private prison is still open for interpretation.

Kenai Peninsula Borough voters, by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, turned thumbs down Tuesday on ballot Proposition 1, which would have allowed the borough to proceed with the planning and possible development of an 800- to 1,000-bed, for-profit, medium-security facility. But Borough Assembly President Tim Navarre, who did not return phone calls, was reported by an area radio station and an Anchorage newspaper as stating the assembly would consider proceeding with a $75,000 feasibility study of the failed project.

James Price, chair of Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons, questioned Navarre's rationale.

"I think the public clearly said that they did not want to go forward with the prison," Price said. "Had the vote been closer, (Navarre) could have considered a feasibility study, although I question the wisdom of dumping more money into this project after so much has already been spent."

Pete Sprague, who won a re-election bid to represent Soldotna on the borough assembly, also was caught off guard by Navarre's comments.

"I was a little surprised and taken aback," he said.

Asked whether the assembly would support a feasibility study of a private prison within the borough, Sprague said, "I won't speculate on what the assembly will say, but I know what I will say. I will say, 'no.'"

Prior to Tuesday's vote, the borough assembly had committed to conducting a feasibility study before continuing with the construction and operation of the prison.

According to Jeff Sinz, borough finance director, a price tag was purposefully not attached to the study in order to avoid limiting the scope of the project and any responses.

Requests for proposals from parties interested in conducting the feasibility study were ready for distribution in the event peninsula voters approved the borough's continued investigation of the project. However, the public's overwhelming opposition effectively brought the project to an end.

"It's not going to go out unless we're directed to do so by the assembly, or the mayor concludes that we should do that," said Sinz of the RFP. "I suspect there will be some discussion between the mayor and the assembly about this, and if there's a joint decision to do that, I imagine we would. But we have not put it out nor do we intend to until we get the direction to do so."

Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said no conversations concerning the study had taken place between himself and Navarre since Tuesday's election.

"I can tell you that as far as I'm concerned, the prison is a dead issue," Bagley said. "The voters spoke clearly on it and said, 'no.'"

Another prison supporter, Bill Popp, who represents portions of Kenai on the borough assembly, refrained from commenting on Navarre's statements. However, he did say, "I am not interested in going forward with a feasibility study at this time."

Grace Merkes, who represents Sterling, said she had no idea what Navarre was talking about.

"I think it was pretty clear that the response from the vote was 'no,'" she said.

Merkes did, however, say she would like to see discussion on what the state's intent is with regard to securing additional in-state prison space.

Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, who also won his bid for re-election on Tuesday, said the assembly has been criticized in the past, "and rightfully so," for ignoring decisions made by voters. He used term limits and animal control as two examples. Specifically referencing Navarre's comments concerning a feasibility study, Fischer said assembly members are free to say that topics are going to be considered.

"But the secret is having the necessary five votes to make it happen," Fischer said. "Just because he says he's going to consider it, does not mean he has the votes to pass it."

Navarre, along with Popp, represents Kenai on the assembly. Voters in the four Kenai precincts cast 1,054 votes opposing Proposition 1, the private prison issue, and only 464 votes supporting the project.

Calls to Navarre were not returned.

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