Four Candidates Running for ASSEMBLY


September 23, 2021

The following is a condensed version of CVN interviews with borough assembly candidates Richard Clement, 66, Tyler Huling, 29, Debra Schnabel, 69, and Brenda Josephson, 56. As opposed to the debate last week, they did not have access to the questions before the interviews.

Clement retired to Haines about four years ago. He worked in Alaska for most of his career as a geologist and project manager in the oil and gas industry and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Huling grew up in Alaska and recently moved to Haines from Homer. She works as a data analyst for the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services and served in the Peace Corps. Schnabel is a life-long Haines resident and former elected official who has worked in town as a KHNS manager, executive director of the Haines Chamber of Commerce and as borough manager. Josephson, also a former elected official, has lived in Haines for several decades and worked for Southeast Roadbuilders. She is currently pursuing a degree in food business leadership at the Culinary Institute of America.

Do you support a seasonal sales tax or some other adjustment to the current sales tax rate?

Clement: No, I don't. I think it would just be better if it was more straightforward. (A seasonal sales tax) would cause a lot more disruption. The accounting would be more difficult. (But) I really need to study the budget better, so I could have a more informed opinion.

Huling: I understand the argument that proponents of that proposition are making. I worry that it might be very complicated for small business owners to actually implement. But overall I would need to learn more and talk to more people about it before making a definitive statement.

Schnabel: I'm not convinced a seasonal sales tax is the answer to increasing sales tax revenue. There are a couple of things about our sales tax structure that I don't support and that is the 5.5% can be reallocated more wisely to align with our specific needs. We need more sales tax revenue allocated to public works, more identified for economic development as opposed to tourism.

Josephson: We would have to consider the consequences of such a thing. I'm not certain if that is the right way to go. We're in a situation where we need to discuss our taxes and how we can be most effective with them. I would have to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of a seasonal sales tax and I think it would need to entail public conversation.

At the debate last week several candidates said that developing a year-round economy could help raise borough revenue. How, specifically, do you plan to develop a year-round economy? (Brenda/Debra) What decisions have you made in your prior experience to advance that goal?

Clement: A year-round economy means jobs that we currently don't have. One thing I'd like to look into is an annual timber harvest. I know it wouldn't be year-round, but that's a topic that came up with AIDEA when we met on Friday. I would think that we could work with the state foresters. Why can't we bump up and have more logs available for value-added enterprises that could occur instead of just cutting it up into dimensional lumber up there.

Also, mining. People don't like to bring up mining because it has become so toxic with the environmentalists. But mining is one shiny thing in the Southeast economy that was (not impacted by the pandemic as much as other industries). The borough has a role to play if there is a hard-rock mine. But not a regulatory one. It would change the complexion of the borough because a lot of young families would move in. They would add children to the schools. They would buy houses and pay property tax. It's a big challenge if the process continues and permits are granted and all that. The borough really needs to be on top of that and plan to the best benefit of all the people in Haines.

Huling: It's definitely important for Haines to have a year-round economy while also acknowledging the realities of Alaska's extreme seasonality and not forcing something unnatural upon the community in order to serve a larger narrative.

What I've learned in talking to a lot of people over the last few weeks is that folks here have amazing ideas about how Haines can grow and new industry options. I think a local timber economy that is tree-to-finished-product with a lot of value addition along the way that keeps the money in the community could be wise.

Schnabel: We need manufacturing. We need to produce things. I continue to support the work of the Haines Economic Development Corporation to help guide us and in some cases lead us to areas or sectors of an economy that we haven't explored. The Baby Brown timber sale is an opportunity we could squander by doing nothing. We should negotiate a way to expand milling opportunities in the community through investment.

Josephson: One of the biggest things I think we could do is to help encourage people to think through value-added products. We've got the hot tub company, the brewery, the distillery. We now have the ale house. As a government, it's a matter of setting a regulatory (policy) that's stable and welcoming to the possibilities.

What is a controversial issue in Haines that you feel torn about?

Clement: People have different opinions on what is essential and what is not essential. We do have enough budget to fund the quality-of-life type things. Some people put more value on that than other people. Those who value the quality-of-life things want more funding. The people who don't put that level of need on that, they want it lower. So you just have to find something in the middle. We have to fund the really essential (services)-water, sewer, fire, police. Those are the things you fund first. If we didn't have that social infrastructure then there wouldn't be any quality of life things in this town. I appreciate flushing my toilet, turning on my water.

Huling: The mountain goats and heliskiing. There's some deep history there. In general, it's a controversy that I can see both sides of fully-what the appropriate size of the heliski industry is, or the appropriate number of permit holders. I have found perspectives on both sides compelling.

Schnabel: I can appreciate the arguments that residents of the outlying areas make about not wanting to contribute to services (like police, arts and cultural institutions or the swimming pool.) What areawide powers can we provide reasonably and if they can't be provided reasonably then we think of another way of reorganizing. As an assembly member and as chair of the consolidation committee I look back and think if I knew then what I know now it would not have ended up the way it ended up. We're so diverse by location and lifestyle in many ways that we need to examine how we can better serve those differing needs. I want to have that conversation.

Josephson: My biggest concern about anything that's considered controversial is the unwillingness to engage in public discourse. Rather than becoming positional and unwilling to engage in those conversations we should be all the more reaching out and engaging. The controversial issue that I feel torn about is our unwillingness to dialogue with our neighbors who have differing perspectives.

In the absence of robust state or federal funding, what steps should the assembly take to improve Haines' infrastructure in the near term?

Clement: The number one thing that I learned last week is that we need to really aggressively fix our freight dock. Thirty years of delayed maintenance is finally at a really crucial spot. If the freight dock fails and they can't fix it right away, everything would have to be trucked here. In 2016, Northern Economics said everything would cost seven times more.

My last job was working on Alyeska Pipeline. I was in charge of all the data collected to measure corrosion on the pipeline. We never would have let anything get as terrible as that dock out there. It would have been addressed 25 years ago. It's really shameful what this borough has done.

I think we came to a good do a phased approach where we utilize possible funding from the Denali Commission. We need to get (the dock) to the point where we have pretty much a final plan and we have permitting in place because then the doors open up to much bigger federal funding that could be coming from the infrastructure bill that still needs to be approved by the House.

We have to fix (the dock), so we'll have to find some funding for it. It's getting to that point. I'm not a fan of new taxes, but I could change my mind-because I don't want to pay seven times more for everything that I consume.

Huling: In the absence of larger funding sources, I think for me the first question would be really prioritizing what the most crucial infrastructure needs are. I think often we are engaging in infrastructure projects that are maybe not totally necessary--although there are some in this community that need immediate attention. If we're not getting larger funding sources, perhaps whittling down what is absolutely necessary and what is not is where I would start. It seems like (Lutak Dock) might be the first need. In terms of a specific answer on a revenue source, I don't have an answer. I would just have to investigate and see what the options are, what's available to us. I would not be willing to commit to saying (that the assembly should raise taxes) now.

Schnabel: I think we need to be realistic about the wealth we have in our permanent fund and ask ourselves if this is the rainy day. We are not as poor as we like to pretend we are. If people don't want to pay taxes we can use some in the reserves. Our fear of tapping into the permanent fund and our resistance to raising taxes to pay for what we want has resulted in the situation we're in, that we didn't take care of our infrastructure.

Josephson: This is an issue we've got relief on. We've got an infrastructure spending bill. A trillion-dollar spending bill is going to be a tremendous resource for the borough. What I believe we need to do is take a look at projects we're aware of and bring them to a situation that is as shovel ready as possible so we're in a position we can compete. We've had over 30 years of not taking care of things. When we address (infrastructure) we need to come up with a long-term plan for maintenance.

Describe a time you sought out an opposing view that changed your perspective on an issue.

Clement: I worked on the Pebble project 15 years ago. And I've watched really closely how the Pebble project has transpired. I was really in favor of it, and now I'm not-because they haven't come up with a good mitigation plan... They just went way overboard on the size of it. Everybody went, "Wait a minute, the tailings piling is going to be huge!" It's a really tough call... Over time you get more information, and you think it over. I lost confidence in their character. If that happens with Constantine, I would change my mind. If they don't come up with a good plan, I wouldn't be in favor of it.

Huling: My perspective has softened to the needs of heliski tour operators. My perspective has softened as I understand that we have to balance our ecological and economic needs. I worked in tourism in many different capacities over the last 15 years and understand it's an important part of our economy and that we have to make space for it.

Schnabel: I used to be a foot stomping individual who said people who have lived here the longest have the most to say about who we are. My sense of how I related to the community has changed by the change of the community itself. It took me a long time to have a conversation with Gershon Cohen and realize he wasn't just some tree hugger. In the 70s when these people came to town, we were a sawmill town. That's all anybody ever did. Cohen's a third-generation person now. Doesn't he have credence? When does a person who comes to Haines get credence?

Josephson: We had an issue on the agenda regarding resource extraction that affected the Mud Bay area. It was a use that was allowable, but I felt we needed to respect past code. But we had a lot of public input from the residents of that area that did not support it. I listened. I tried to learn why they held such strong views. In the end I supported the perspectives of the majority of the people I was hearing from. They were restricting resource extraction for the (Mud Bay) area.

Based on your experience, do you think the majority of people oppose or agree with the following statements:

Adopting the second amendment sanctuary city resolution was the right decision.

Clement: Without doing a poll or anything, there's a lot of really big-time hunters and hunter-gatherer types around here, and I'm just guessing, but I bet the majority would say, "Sure."

Huling: Oppose. What I see in opposition to it is not even so much the content of the thing itself but just the way it happened, the process and the lack of public participation.

Schnabel: The majority of people oppose it. The sanctuary city movement had a very definite political and philosophical basis to it, which I don't think is the reason the majority of people own guns.

Josephson: It's about fifty-fifty. I cannot land on either side based on the people I've spoken to. There's been people who were neutral on it. Just as many people I've spoken to felt strongly for it as well as strongly against it.

Borough funding for services such as the pool, Chilkat Center and Mosquito Lake Community Center should be a priority.

Clement: Well, yeah. I think the majority of the people here appreciate the quality-of-life add-ons that the borough funds. And especially since we have a very aged population. Haines is almost 20 years older than the average Alaska-anywhere. We have a lot of people that are my age or even older, so those people have a lot of time on their hands. They like to go swimming. They like to go to the library. And it does make Haines a very unique little hamlet, too. I appreciate that.

Huling: Yes. I think people agree with that. I do think people value what (those institutions) add to the community.

Schnabel: I do not think the majority of people think that is true. I think most people would say that life, safety and community health and education are the priorities in this community.

Josephson: The majority of people I've spoken to understand we need to meet our basics first. There's definitely a core group of supporters that have voiced the need to have them. Everyone understands those are services we've had a long time that we would like to continue to provide.

A working mine at the Palmer Project would be a good thing for the Chilkat Valley.

Clement: According to the last survey, slightly more than half said they were either strongly or somewhat approving of a mine. But I wish everybody would get really involved and really pay attention to it. Because it's going to possibly impact the entire valley. And if we're not on top of it and we don't have a good plan to address the housing needs and the traffic needs and all that kind of stuff then we're going to get railroaded into something because we never got around to thinking about it.

Huling: It's a really even split. I would say the demographics of Haines are changing and (Haines) over time will be a community that is less supportive of industrial mega-projects.

Schnabel: I would say the majority if people do not agree with that. I think that if you (asked if) an environmentally responsible mining operation would be good for Haines, then I think the majority would say yes.

Josephson: There's strong opinions on both sides. Where there seems to be the majority is kind of in the middle where it would have to be demonstrated that (the environment) could be protected, if that's possible.

What is your position on those statements?

Adopting the second amendment sanctuary city resolution was the right decision.

Clement: It was out of scope for the borough to take up an issue like that. It had no consequence. So why waste borough time?

Huling: Disagree. It seems highly politicized, controversial and likely to cause conflict in a town already dealing with enough large issues. It feels more like an attempt to make a point about a cultural direction than about an actual need or an actual threat.

Schnabel: No. I think it puts up a flag to some radical people who identify areas as a place where certain activities take place that are not acceptable elsewhere.

Josephson: I felt the resolution was kind of a distraction from the important work the borough should be concentrating on. It was not a local issue. I really think it should have bene something they shouldn't have had on the agenda.

Borough funding for services such as the pool, Chilkat Center and Mosquito Lake Community Center should be a priority.

Clement: I would definitely be in favor of funding those as much as we possibly can. I realize that they are vital for quite a bit of the population... I live across the street from the Chilkat Center for the Arts, and I think it's pretty cool that we turned a fish cannery into an art thing. Not many towns can say something like that.

Huling: Yes, great. Of course we have to ensure that all of our basic health, safety and infrastructure needs are met. But I think we also have the capacity to prioritize our social service institutions. I think the desire to strip away funding from public institutions is not about economic need but is about culture-a culture of hyper-individualism perhaps.

Schnabel: I think they are not a priority but do I think they are very important? Yes.

Josephson: We need to prioritize our basic service first: school, public safety, fire, ambulance and police. We need to make sure our public works is able to work, that people are getting water when they turn on the faucet, that our roads are plowed and our structures maintained. I certainly support maintaining the services we've all become accustomed to that we enjoy.

A working mine at the Palmer Project would be a good thing for the Chilkat Valley.

Clement: I'm probably the first candidate for the assembly that'll come out and say I'm in favor of a mine if it's done according to the highest regulatory specifications. I bet nobody else has come out and said that...(The mine is) a possibility at this point, and if it continues to be a possibility we need to stay on top of it and maximize the benefit for everybody in Haines...From what I know today, I'm confident they could develop the mine successfully and live up to every regulation.

Huling: Oppose. I have studied and worked extensively with communities that have rooted their economies in industrial-scale mega-projects. These projects are often very highly encouraged by the people who benefit from them. And as a culture we are really unaware of all of the people who are harmed by them. I think that although some people make large sums of money for a short amount of time, the net harm and devastation over the long term is not worth that boom economy.

Schnabel: I would love to feel 100 % confident that a mine with a tailings pile next to a river would somehow not contaminate the watershed. But then Mount Polley happens and other disaster happen around the world and close to home and I become very concerned.

Josephson: In order to win my support they'd have to demonstrate it could be done in an environmentally responsible manner and not cause challenges with other industries. It would be a good thing because we would have the advantage of having year-long jobs as well as the ability for the borough to require infrastructure to be used for public purposes like roads and utilities for the upper valley.

Is there anything about how the media portrays you or people with your views that feels inaccurate?

Clement: The anti-mining crowd is trying to use misinformation so that the people in Haines will be on their side. A couple of years ago myself and all the miners that I know were extremely disgusted by the (Power Consulting) report. (That was a report commissioned two years ago by the Friends of the Chilkat and Klehini Rivers about the social impacts of mining, including increases in violent crime, poverty and drug use). It was completely false. I mean it was true possibly for (other places), but the whole scenario is completely different here in Haines. It was a smear campaign to weaken the social contract that Constantine is trying to build. I want to call them on all these things and say what's your source of information? Is that your opinion? Is that a fact? If a fact, where'd you get it?

Huling: I think the media portrayal of my campaign has been appropriate. I think that folks who work in the media are doing the best they can to be unbiased. I would say (also) that I grew up in Alaska, and like many Alaskans I do not fit neatly into one ideology or political classification. I have a diversity of viewpoints.

Schnabel: No. I sometimes wish you would not write something and sometimes wish you would write other things, but I don't really take issue with what you write.

Josephson: I've been misquoted before. I was upset with you. I felt that my views were mischaracterized. I felt in general my views were mischaracterized and to see a quote that was not accurate reinforced a perspective I had that my views were mischaracterized. It was very difficult to see something in quotes, something I did not say, which I felt mischaracterized my position on a subject.

(Josephson is referencing a September 2020 CVN article where she was quoted as saying she supported "responsible resource extraction" when in fact she said "responsible resource development." Josephson later told the CVN that the difference between extraction and development is a matter of responsibility and that the term "extraction" is often conflated with irresponsible industry practices.)

Questions for individual Candidates:

For Clement: What steps will you take as an assembly member to try to move beyond the us-versus-them attitude that you seem to have towards environmentalists?

Clement: You have to work from the same facts. You can't have one side saying DEC (the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation) doesn't do their job and the mining companies just walk right over them, and the other side saying DEC is doing a great job. You have to say, "Where'd you get your information? Where's the proof of your global statement about DEC's reputation?" Because that's the problem: people don't have the same facts. I even thought about joining Lynn Canal Conservation. Why not? I'd definitely talk to them. That's what an assembly person does. Number one: Be a good listener and ask good questions. Finding the facts behind people's beliefs is what you have to do.

For Huling: At the debate you said that you've observed "dozens and dozens" of young people move to Haines, and you described Haines as "thriving." But census and state data show that Haines' population has declined and aged over the last 10 years. What makes you confident that Haines can buck regional and statewide trends by attracting more young people and keeping families here? What evidence would you cite beyond personal observation that Haines is thriving?

Huling: The narrative that more is more and that more is better and more is preferred is not really one that I ascribe to. I think that the absolutely hard numbers on enrollment or population are a convenient way to-if we're being really, really honest, the narrative that school enrollment was higher during the big timber years and is smaller now is really just a way to push an extractive narrative. I don't think that small fluctuations up or down in Haines' overall population or school enrollment is really that consequential or important of a point. The perspective that endless growth is always the goal is not one that I live within. I'm really open to many different forms of development and change. I just think we have to be really wise and thoughtful about spreading the narrative and using the language that Haines is dying because there is a stable population or a slight decline in this data point or that data point. I don't think it's a good indicator of the health of the community. In terms of aging, people are having less children and demographics are shifting not only in our country but globally, and the population aging is not, I believe, indicative of an actual decline in Haines itself but part of a larger trend. The reality is that there are a lot of young folks moving here and that Haines has things that will be incredibly attractive as places like California begin to collapse. We have things that people are going to want.

For Schnabel: In the candidate debate, you've seemed to be the most willing to support tax increases. What would you say to voters who may not vote for you because they don't want to accept any tax increases?

Schnabel: If you want to continue in a community that is not paying for what it needs for its infrastructure and for its quality of life, then we probably are going to stay where we are or digress. If we want to improve our situation, it requires money to do it, and taxation is an option. Governments have that power. Are we in a situation where that might be necessary? When I look at all the things we want, then yes. We want a public safety building, we want a Lutak Dock, we want streets and sidewalks, we want vibrant recreation opportunities. As long as we identify that we want things, then we have to pay for them.

For Josephson: Mosquito Lake Community Center Victory Garden coordinator Erika Merklin wrote a letter to the editor that expressed skepticism that you care about local agriculture. She criticizes you for a lack of engagement with local agricultural initiatives and for voting against funding requests that would have promoted food security. What is your response to that? What will you do as an assembly member to promote local agriculture?

Josephson: She can't discount my desire to promote healthy eating. The degree I'm going after is a bachelor degree program in food business leadership. She wanted to establish a program with paid staff and with paid administrative fees that she would have a paid position for. The borough was not at that time nor at this time in a position to be starting new programs. We need to maintain the programs we have. Now we have a volunteer-based group of people that are using the community center very effectively. That's how we get programs that succeed, by getting those people to work on a volunteer basis to work to support new programs. I believe there is a place for commercial agriculture in Southeast Alaska. This isn't a program the government should be starting. We need to have a regulatory process in place and be contributing to the conversation and helping people.

*The original version of this article stated that Richard Clement spent most of his career as an engineer in the oil and gas industry and Alaska Department of Natural Resources. In fact, he was a geologist and project manager, not an engineer.


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