Four candidates for Haines Borough Assembly sounded more alike than different at Monday’s forum sponsored by We the People’s Haines chapter.

Assembly candidate Mike Case was out of town and couldn’t attend the forum. Mayor candidates Stephanie Scott and Jan Hill were not invited to participate.

The Haines School’s Drama, Debate and Forensics team was set to co-sponsor the event, but principal Cheryl Stickler determined the DDF team couldn’t attach itself to the forum because of the school’s “controversial issues policy.”

We the People member Nelle Jurgeleit-Greene, who moderated the forum, said there was some “controversy” about including the DDF team. Jurgeleit-Greene made clear the group is non-partisan and open to everyone.

“Obviously, that’s not how some people feel because there’s already been some controversy today about having the DDF team here,” Jurgeleit-Greene said.

Candidates Mario Benassi, Jerry Erny, Ron Jackson and Joe Parnell took turns answering four questions crafted by We the People, then took ones from the audience. Questions could not be targeted at one specific candidate and each was given a chance to answer.

The four candidates agreed on most issues, with slight variations.

In response to a question from resident Katya Kirsch regarding the candidates’ stance on the East Lynn Canal Road, candidates took turns slamming the Juneau Road project as “a boondoggle” (Benassi), “terrible” (Parnell) and a “nightmare scenario” (Jackson). Erny clarified he doesn’t oppose the road because of environmental issues, but because it’s fiscally irresponsible.

Erny, who is 59, added that he doesn’t think the road will be built in his lifetime and questioned whether the assembly needed to concern itself with the project at this point.

Local business owner Karen Hess asked candidates whether they saw any economic development opportunities on the horizon, and tacked on a follow-up, asking if they supported more cruise ships coming to Haines.

Parnell said while he would support cruise ships coming five days a week, promoting economic development in town should focus on making Haines more livable. Opening the Haines School gym on Sundays and sprucing up downtown displays would make the town inviting and more tolerable during winter months, Parnell said.

Pursuing more cruise ship dockings makes sense since Haines has invested a lot of money in the underutilized Port Chilkoot Dock infrastructure, Jackson said, though he would prefer to see the town ease into more cruise ships instead of getting a huge boom at once.

Benassi said while he would support more cruise ships, “We don’t want to be Skagway.” Benassi would also want to make sure cruise ships are abiding by state and federal laws, and that the community actually supports increased dockings.

Creation of a new borough community and economic development director position isn’t the answer to stimulating economic growth in Haines, Erny said. “Frankly, I don’t think that’s a necessary position in our town. I think what’s necessary in our town is for our assembly and our populous to be a little bit more embracing to new businesses. Everyone’s over-regulating. You can’t build this here, you can’t do that there,” he said.

“Instead of working so hard to fight them, let’s work just as hard to embrace them and bring them here and let them do business here, and that includes all types of businesses – not just cruise ships, the fishing industry, people that want to run restaurants, the whole thing,” Erny added.

Erny’s response to a question about borough funding of nonprofits stood out, as he was the only candidate to directly suggest re-examining the funding process. Erny said he and his wife donated their Permanent Fund Dividend checks to local nonprofits and charitable organizations the first four years they lived here.

“When I learned how much money the borough was giving these nonprofits, I quit donating, because the government was picking the winners and I didn’t think that was really appropriate,” he said.

Parnell gave a concise, four-word response to the question about nonprofit funding: “I’m all for it.”

“Definitely we should fund nonprofits to the ability we can,” Benassi said, adding that the borough could “think outside of the box” to ensure dwindling federal and state revenues don’t adversely affect local nonprofit funding.

Questions asked by We the People focused on government process and included whether candidates thought government needs to be fixed and how they would fix it, what the best policy would be for appointing residents to committees and task forces, whether the public hearing system is effective and how it might be changed, and how candidates would solve or mitigate community divisiveness.

The questions were intentionally general, said moderator Jurgeleit-Greene. “We were trying to get a general overview with how candidates would act as an assembly person. We weren’t looking for any specific issues,” Jurgeleit-Greene said.

The vague questions drew mostly vague answers.

“Basically, the best thing you can do, in my opinion, is vote for the person you want and hope for the best,” Parnell said.

Benassi pointed to everyone establishing “common ground” as the way to get through contentious issues. “We need to establish our core values. What is it we all live here for? Why do we find this place a place we want to live? I think that draws us all together, not apart. And we have to work from that point, rather than saying, ‘Oh, I’m different in this way, and you’re different in that way, let’s fight on those issues.’ No, let’s find the common ground, our core values.”

Parnell questioned whether resolving divisiveness was even necessary. “That’s part of the process. It’s part of living in an adult world. There’s different folks and they believe in different things, but we do live in the same society and we have to come to an agreement on how we’re going to make things work, so we elect six people to sit up there and sit at the assembly and direct our small borough,” Parnell said.

Erny called for “a little less passion, (and) a little more understanding” when trying to get through heated issues. When people get passionate, they don’t listen well and become “blind to being educated,” he said.

“I think the hardest part is to get two groups together that disagree on something and educating them in ways that don’t seem condescending to them… You get together in some of these meetings and you learn to understand why you feel this way and why you feel that way, and it takes time and it takes a little bit of effort and you have to stay calm,” Erny said.

Jackson had a simple suggestion for depressurizing contentious debates. “The assembly needs to model the behavior that they want to create,” Jackson said. “If the assembly is divided and their behavior is modeling the controversy or the contentiousness, then they promote it in the community.”

Moderator Jurgeleit-Greene said We the People decided to leave the Mayor candidates out of the debate “mostly due to time.”

Three more debates are scheduled before the election. KHNS is hosting an assembly candidate forum at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, in the Haines High School open area. KHNS is hosting a mayoral candidate forum and discussion of ballot measures at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 2, in the high school open area.

The Haines Chamber of Commerce is hosting a candidate forum noon Friday at the Harbor Bar.