Assembly member Natalie Dawson at a Feb. 15 meeting. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Appointed Board of Equalization

Haines will have a separate board of equalization to adjudicate disputes about property assessments next year instead of relying on assembly members to do the job. A resolution to make the change passed at Tuesday’s meeting unanimously, the first change in the city’s tax assessment process after controversy with the process last year. An ad hoc committee suggested the change. When assembly members served on the board, citizens appealing their tax assessments weren’t allowed to speak with assembly members who were adjudicating them, which critics said took away their right to representation in the government. The resolution passed on its first hearing, since the borough code already allows for the change, according to clerk Alekka Fullerton. Separately, Sen. Jesse Kiehl announced he would seek a change to state law that would make appointed boards of equalization the default in municipalities, among other proposals. Paul Rogers, who chaired the ad hoc committee in Haines, applauded the assembly for its action Tuesday and encouraged the assembly to write a letter in support of Kiehl’s pending bill. 

Reconsidering state lobbyist

Assembly members are having second thoughts about not funding a lobbyist to advocate for the borough in Juneau. Member Kevin Forster brought a motion to reconsider hiring Reid Harris as a lobbyist after Forster and other members voted against hiring Harris for $36,000 at the last assembly meeting. Forster said he and other assembly members were contacted by Harris, and said he was impressed. “I believe this would be an investment that would pay off for the borough,” said Forster. Member Gabe Thomas said that while he preferred the borough’s previous lobbyist, Theodore Popely, he thought representation in Juneau was important. “I’ll eat crow and go with Harris so that we can have a seat at the table,” he said. Natalie Dawson, who previously spoke strongly against hiring a state lobbyist, also said she was reconsidering her vote. She pointed to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent decision to dissolve the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Committee, and the fact that few citizens had offered to travel to Juneau regularly to advocate for the borough. 

Meeting with lawyers on Porcupine appeal

Borough manager Annette Kreitzer said she had met with the Anchorage-based law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot to discuss a possible appeal of FEMA’s decision to cancel $1.4 million of funding to repair Porcupine Trail Road. She said the attorneys told her it was worth continuing to investigate an appeal based on their review of the city’s draft response to FEMA and their review of assembly meetings. The assembly has yet to vote on whether to pursue the appeal. A subcommittee of assembly members is working on revisions to the borough’s response to FEMA, and mayor Tom Morphet said he had a verbal commitment from Kimberley Strong, the president of Klukwan’s tribal government, that the tribe hoped to be able to support the appeal. 

LCC presents alternative to Lutak

Jessica Plachta, director of Lynn Canal Conservation, presented assembly members with a downsized design concept for Lutak Dock. The federal government continues to investigate whether Turnagain Construction, the contractor hired by the borough, violated federal rules in purchasing steel before it had approval for the $25 million project. Plachta proposed a smaller dock that would not require as much steel be put in tidal zones, which she said would likely save millions in maintenance costs. The dock would not be able to accommodate Handymax ships, which she said would eliminate residents’ concerns that the dock would be used to handle ore from the Palmer Project, a proposed copper and zinc mine 35 miles outside of Haines. LCC’s proposal was based on a design from R&M Engineering that was presented in 2019, but without the capacity for larger ships. Some assembly members appeared interested in the design, but ultimately didn’t take any action. Several pointed out that they were still awaiting an official response from the federal government about whether the borough and its contractor had violated federal rules, which could put a $20 million grant at risk. 

No BLM withdrawals

The borough assembly is opposing giving up millions of acres of federal land in the Chilkat Valley for potential mining or other development. The Trump administration had proposed giving up 28 million acres of land around the Chilkat Valley up for potential development. The process has been controversial since opening lands could lead to a loss of federal subsistence priority impacting hundreds of tribes across the state, among other reasons. The Biden administration decided to conduct and environmental impact statement on the withdrawals. Assembly member Ben Aultman-Moore said the vast majority of the lands selected for withdrawals have already been identified as having cultural or subsistence value. The assembly voted to support an option in which no land was opened.