Concerns about the Small Boat Harbor project this week prompted Haines Borough staff to look into how the current design was chosen.

Manager David Sosa and interim public facilities director Brian Lemcke on Tuesday started digging into the question, pulling old assembly agendas, minutes and timelines. The two discovered the Feb. 25, 2014, assembly agenda item to decide the current design – referred to as Concept 14B – was initially placed on the consent agenda.

“That whole thing was not going to be discussed,” Lemcke said. “That really got our attention.”

Lemcke said he and Sosa were alarmed, and dug further into the meeting’s minutes. Assembly member Debra Schnabel ended up pulling the decision off the consent agenda, and a short discussion ensued before the 4-2 vote to confirm the design. Schnabel and assembly member George Campbell were opposed.

Lemcke pointed out that the decision was at the end of a jam-packed agenda: the same meeting included approving the sale of land to the Aspen Hotel, an appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision to deny a conditional use permit to Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures for use of a heliport on Chilkat Lake Road, and discussion of an ordinance allowing ATV use on borough roads and highways.

“It was a huge agenda,” Lemcke said. “What happens is you spend three or four hours discussing these big contentious issues and then suddenly, ‘Oh yeah, here’s a little discussion about the boat harbor.’ Everybody says, ‘It’s good. I’m tired. I want to go home.’”

The two designs up for consideration were Concept 14B – the one ultimately chosen – and Concept 3A. These two “finalists” were put forth because they both featured wave barriers as the form of harbor protection.

(At the Jan. 28 assembly meeting, the group had voted 4-2 to move forward with a partially-penetrating wave barrier instead of a rubble mound breakwater. Campbell and assembly member Dave Berry were opposed.)

Campbell said he wanted to see a cost-benefit analysis before moving forward, and Schnabel said she believed 3A’s parking area was “smarter” and “more compact,” not angling out into Portage Cove.

The primary difference between concepts 14B and 3A are the interior configurations of the harbor and the location of Lookout Park. Both designs require considerable dredging and a wave barrier (though 3A’s barrier is only 550 feet long, compared to 14B’s 700 feet).

In 3A, Lookout Park is moved to the water’s edge of a 360-foot long jetty on the southern end of the project’s footprint. In 14B, the park stays in its current location, encircled by the expanded parking lot.

According to estimates by PND Engineers, the firm handling the project, concept 3A is also less expensive than 14B.

Sosa said Wednesday his and Lemcke’s investigation didn’t alter his conviction to continue moving forward with 14B, as the assembly clearly voted on both the wave barrier and design, though both votes were split 4-2.

“At the national level, we just had several presidential elections in the past where it was 49/51 or close to 50/50, but there’s a winner,” Sosa said. “When they vote, they’ve made a decision, and it’s my job and the job of the staff to act on the decisions of the assembly.”

Sosa said the assembly was fully informed before they made the decision, and as the assembly’s employee, it isn’t his place to alter the group’s directive. “There’s no rationale for me to go back and say, ‘Oh, we should do something different just because some people in the community don’t like it.’”

In letter he wrote to the Mayor and assembly this week, Sosa stated he has “no personal investment in the harbor construction project,” and reiterated without a “revised mandate” from the assembly, he didn’t have the authority to direct fundamental changes to the design.

Sosa acknowledged in the letter that during the course of the project’s development, “there have been elements lacking,” including a cost-benefit analysis and Public Participation Process. Sosa suggested contracting with an outside agency to handle these two elements of large projects in the future.

“The social dynamics of this community are such that I believe these actions are best addressed by contracting to entities outside the borough in order to avoid bias or accusations of bias,” Sosa wrote.

When asked this week what he thought of putting the issue on the October ballot as an advisory vote, asking the community if it supports the project’s current design, Sosa said that’s always an option.

“It’s not my call. I think that’s something that people could bring up to the assembly,” Sosa said. “I would argue, though, that part of why we elect these officials in a representative democracy is to allow them to vote and represent the views of the community. That’s what they did.”

According to the borough website, July 28 is the last assembly meeting at which the body could introduce an ordinance placing a question on the ballot. Clerk Julie Cozzi said this week that citizens would need to submit signed petitions to her office by Aug. 12 in order to put the project to an advisory vote.