Alaska Mental Health Trust officials will be in Saxman and Ketchikan on Tuesday to give presentations and take public input on the Trust’s controversial plan to log parts of Deer Mountain if a federal land exchange isn’t approved by Congress by mid-January.
But, an organizer of the local group Save Deer Mountain said these public meetings seem to be too little, too late.
Alaska Mental Health Trust’s full board of trustees met last week as the Trust Land Office’s Resource Management Committee, and during that meeting, the board took another vote on logging Deer Mountain and a parcel in Petersburg that sits above homes.
Those votes were called “reconsiderations” by Trust Land Office Executive Director John Morrison, and they were referred to as such in the committee agenda.
“I did want to say that these are two unique items on our agenda,” he said. “They are reconsiderations due to an abundance of caution based on some concerns about previous process.”
Those “concerns” were accusations from people in Ketchikan and Petersburg that the August votes by the committee and later the full board were not adequately noticed in accordance with state Open Meetings Act requirements; and that there was no opportunity for public input before the Trust board voted on logging sensitive areas close to the two communities.
Bob Weinstein cofounded Save Deer Mountain, a Ketchikan citizen action group that formed soon after that August decision was announced. He said the committee’s recent second vote was not a true reconsideration of the action taken.
“I think a reasonable person would think there hasn’t been serious reconsideration of the issue,” he said. “It’s redoing their vote and claiming that, because they noticed the meeting and had it in public, that that satisfies the public process. Well, I don’t think it does from a legal point of view, but it certainly doesn’t from just a public policy point of view.”
Weinstein also noted that the committee meeting did not provide any opportunity for public comment.
The committee did acknowledge receiving a single written comment, but didn’t identify who sent it or the content of the comment. Weinstein said he knows more than one written comment had been sent to the committee. One was from him, and in it:
“I not only objected to the lack of public comment, that they were unwilling to allow concerned citizens to make before they made the decision, but I also, in an effort to be constructive said, ‘Hey, you know, why don’t you amend the motion to open the door to options in case the exchange legislation fails?’” he said.
The committee did not consider any alternative motions to the one already on the agenda, but following the vote, Morrison noted that the TLO would consider alternative proposals.
The TLO Resource Management Committee vote isn’t the final decision; it’s merely a recommendation to the board of trustees, and when the board meets, there will be public comment. But, Weinstein said:
“The fact is, however, the real decisions are made at the Resource Management Committee level… so this is where public comment should have been considered,” he said.
The motion was to recommend a second vote by the board during its Nov. 17 meeting. It passed with one trustee objecting – Jerome Selby of Kodiak.
Selby also was the only board member to ask a question before voting. He wondered whether the committee action, and the likely action that will be taken on Nov. 17, would affect the federal land exchange, which Sen. Lisa Murkowski is trying to push through Congress.
Morrison told the board that Murkowski’s office has told him that they are optimistic that the exchange legislation will advance during the upcoming lame duck session, and that the senator doesn’t think the current action would negatively affect that movement.
Board Chairman Russ Webb said during the committee meeting that he’s pleased there will be public input meetings in the affected communities. He noted that the board had intended to do that before the August vote.
“For a variety of reasons, including family illness and other things, that was unable to occur at that time,” he said.
While Weinstein is skeptical that the Alaska Mental Health Trust board will vote any differently in November than it did in August, he encourages concerned citizens in Saxman and Ketchikan to attend the public meetings, and provide input.
“Keeping in mind that a good part of the meeting will be sort of a dog and pony show about how the operate, but not how they really operate,” he said.
During the committee meeting, Morrison told the trustees that he would attend the public input meetings, along with other Trust and Trust Land Office officials. He also noted that Trustee Carlton Smith of Juneau would attend the Saxman and Ketchikan meetings.
A public input meeting took place in Petersburg last week. Tuesday’s public input meetings are scheduled for 3-5 p.m. at the Saxman Community Hall, and 7-9 p.m. at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.