Public referenda, goal-setting sessions, office hours and reinvigorated committees – those are a handful of proposals a new slate of assembly members have tossed out as they take office.
New assembly members Craig Loomis, Natalie Dawson and Kevin Forster – plus new Mayor Tom Morphet – say their election represents Haines’ desire for more transparency and accountability from public officials. New members were sworn into office Oct. 24.
“For the people that ran, transparency and accountability seem to really resonate in this election,” said Morphet, a former newspaperman who defeated Jan Hill in the Oct. 4 election.
“We struggle because the public isn’t happy with what we’re doing,” said Debra Schnabel, who currently sits on the assembly and whose term expires in 2024. “That means our representation hasn’t been true.”
Morphet said one of his first orders of business would be to extend the public comment period in assembly meetings from three to six minutes. Morphet also pushed for an ordinance to allow assembly members to add items to the assembly agendas.
“What I’m personally about is getting the assembly in the driver’s seat,” said Morphet.
Assembly members had ideas of their own. One idea, proposed by Forster, is to have an annual facilitated goal-setting session that would be open to the public to narrow down assembly priorities for the year. Forster compared the idea to a strategic planning session.
“Basically it’s an annual goal-setting practice,” said Forster, a small business owner.
The idea appears to have wide support from other members.
“It’s an opportunity for us to be proactive,” said Dawson. Ben Aultman-Moore, whose term expires in 2025, said he thought the idea could help streamline which items the assembly tackles.
“Ultimately, I think having effectively-run meetings on what the public desires and civic strategy in the long run is going to save us time,” Aultman-Moore said.
“Without some list of things that it wants to get done, the borough gets consumed with the issues du jour,” said Morphet. On Monday, he said he’d been calling facilitators who could run the planning session.
Dawson also proposed reinvigorating committees, some of which were recently on the verge of being canceled. At the Oct. 10 meeting, the assembly postponed a vote to eliminate the Parks and Recreation Committee after hearing from some of the newly-elected assembly members .
Members floated several other ideas to increase transparency, but it’s not clear how widely they would be supported. Most controversially, Morphet has suggested holding a public referendum vote to gauge public support for the development of the Palmer Project, a copper, zinc, gold and silver deposit about 35 miles north of town. The deposit is still being explored, but some fear it risks contaminating the Chilkat watershed. Morphet said the vote would be useful to guide which projects the borough takes on.
“We get asked all the time ‘Should we put money in Porcupine Road?’ If 50% plus one percent of people don’t want this mine, we aren’t putting a penny into that road,” said Morphet.
The idea was backed by Loomis.
“The people of Haines should have a vote so we know which way this valley wants to go,” he said.
Others were skeptical.
“It’s important to only hold public votes on projects that we as a whole community have an understanding of what we’re voting on,” said Dawson. “I worry that there just hasn’t been enough information provided.”
Aultman-Moore called the idea of public referenda “dangerous because of a majority rule situation.”
“If you have 51% of people saying we want it or we don’t want it, then the borough’s gonna have to take a stance on a very divided and nuanced issue,” he said. “And I do think a vote would be very close.”
Members also floated ideas about changing criteria for conditional use permits, making new policies on property tax assessments, and dropping the borough’s defense from residents’ appeal of a heliport permit at 26 Mile of the Haines Highway.