Voters clear about their vision for size, scope of government

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

A particularly divisive campaign over a proposed private prison is over. It is time for opposing sides to shake hands and move forward. It would be a shame to allow this issue to continue polarizing the community.

Although the defeat of Proposition 1 prohibits the borough from proceeding with the design and construction of any privately operated prison for two years, there has been some suggestion that a feasibility study still could be done.

If the vote had been close, going ahead with a feasibility study might make sense. The vote wasn't close. There was no mixed message. Although it could be reasonably argued that people voted "no" for a number of reasons -- including the lack of a feasibility study -- there still is no justification to move ahead to study this project. Borough officials' energy and time would be better spent elsewhere.

That "elsewhere" might mean back at the basics, a reexamination of the purpose of borough government. Is the borough, particularly the borough assembly, headed in the same direction as the people of the borough?

The question comes to mind because two themes emerged loud and clear during Tuesday's election:

Don't spend money.

Don't enlarge government.

Not only did voters say "No" to the prison proposition, but they also defeated measures which would have allowed the sale of bonds to expand and renovate the Borough Building to address health and safety concerns and which would have allowed the sale of bonds for a Soldotna events center. In addition, voters chose not to expand the borough assembly from nine to 13 members.

Although there were other issues involved, the resounding defeat of Proposition 1 (by a 76 to 24 percent margin) also can be linked to these two themes. Even preliminary looks at the prison project cost the borough some money, which was criticized, and throughout this process, there have been those who have questioned whether economic development and public safety are proper roles for the borough.

It would be easy for borough assembly members to dismiss their critics as naysayers and ignorant of government. That's too easy, however, and dangerous. Those elected to govern aren't an elite, know-more group. When they lose touch with the people who elected them, discussions start taking on an "us-against-them" tone. When that happens, it's hard to accomplish anything. No matter what the assembly -- or any other elected body -- does at that point, it will be suspect. Plans need to have buy-in from a cross-section of residents, not just those considered the movers and shakers of a community.

Which brings up other observations based on the results of Tuesday's election:

Just as with the permanent fund vote of two years ago, big money did not determine the outcome of the prison proposition. In fact, it's easy to wonder if polished campaigns funded with corporate money may hurt more than help any particular cause.

One person can make a difference. Although public employee unions and their money also got involved in working against the private prison proposition, the power of the "No" vote was in its grass-roots origins. Individuals philosophically opposed to private prisons took their convictions to the streets and won.

Just as with the permanent fund vote, there was no single reason the private prison proposition was defeated. The process by which a team of companies was picked to promote and potentially design, construct and operate the prison; a time line which had voters deciding the fate of the project before a feasibility study was done; concerns about public safety; questions about the role of borough government; and personal philosophies which oppose the concept of private, for-profit prisons all contributed to the downfall of the proposition.

It's worth noting that none of the candidates for either the borough or city offices who campaigned for the private prison were elected. Economic development is a "Mom and apple pie" issue -- but people won't support a project on the basis of jobs alone.

One of the things that made the prison campaign particularly bitter was that both camps assumed motivations for the other. That's unfortunate. People on both sides of this issue love the community they live in; they just have different visions for what would build a better community. It's ludicrous to think that anyone would sacrifice public safety in the name of jobs or greed, just as it's ludicrous to think anyone would kiss a $66-million economic opportunity and jobs for the future good-bye without giving it thoughtful consideration.

As the dust of the election settles, it would be wrong for those on the losing side of the prison issue to start a blame game of why it was defeated. There's been a healthy debate about the proposal. Let's move on.

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