Three candidates for Ketchikan Gateway Borough mayor duked it out in an on-air forum at KRBD Monday night. Education, tourism, and the borough budget drove the conversation.
Rodney Dial is a retired Alaska State Trooper and Army veteran. He’s served on the borough assembly since 2016, and to hear him tell it, he’s been busy.
“For example, we balanced the budget from a million-dollar deficit, fully funding our schools and nonprofits, and we did that with no tax rate increases,” Dial said. “I also personally developed a plan to advance borough issues to the White House, which helped save our community over 1.1 million per year.”
Dial says the budget is top of mind for him.
Cuts in the state budget mean the borough’s costs are rising: less reimbursement for school construction debt; less community assistance and rising insurance costs. And he wants to manage all this without raising taxes.
Challenger Michelle O’Brien pitched herself as an experienced planner and manager.
“Well, I’ve got over 25 years of team building experience both in the corporate world and the nonprofit world,” O’Brien said.
She’s manager of Ketchikan Radio Center which operates a trio of commercial stations in town.
“I’ve worked for the Boy Scouts as well as managing multimillion dollar budgets for Fortune 500 companies,” O’Brien said.
This isn’t her first election. She served on Ketchikan’s school board for seven years.
Tourism is the biggest economic driver in Ketchikan — 1.2 million cruise passengers are expected to visit in 2020 — but O’Brien says the borough should plan for growth responsibly.
“We need to figure out a way to have an actual plan that strategically and geographically spreads out those tourists,” O’Brien said.
The third candidate is a university student under the age of 30. Sidney Hartley studies Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast in Ketchikan.
Her biggest priority is education. Harltey says that’s tied to economic prosperity.
“So I just I really want to work on retaining professional roles in our community,” Hartley said. “We do that by offering the best education system that we possibly can.”
Dial and O’Brien both said they feel Ketchikan’s schools are adequately funded by the borough.
Hartley says she disagrees. She says she’s polled community members — informally — to ask what they think.
“The general response I’ve been receiving is that we don’t even offer the programs that we offered in the ’70s,” Hartley said.
She says she’d like to see more support for the district’s racial and ethnic diversity. She says she wants to see resources for native languages and Tagalog, the language spoken by many of Ketchikan’s Filipino population.
The future of the community was discussed in the context of the proposed private cruise dock on Ward Cove. Developers seek to redevelop the former mill site into a private cruise ship destination. But the city of Ketchikan and state and federal regulators have environmental and logistical concerns.
Dial says he isn’t ready to take a position until the Army Corps permit process is complete. But he says development would bring jobs and tax revenue.
“So I guess the question for me would be why wouldn’t we want that improved,” Dial asked.
O’Brien says she wants the developers to invest in transportation infrastructure. She says there’s still a few kinks to work out, but she’s supportive.
“Until you come to me with another viable industry that is going to promote this community and build up this community, I’m going to support this,” O’Brien said.
Hartley says a lack of existing infrastructure and concerns over legacy pollution around the port lead her to oppose new development. She says she wants the Army Corps to hold a public hearing before the project moves forward.
“So if we’re not engaging our community, and asking them, ‘What do you want? This is your home, too,’ then we’re not really doing our jobs, are we,” Hartley said.
Sidney Hartley, Michelle O’Brien and Rodney Dial are on the ballot October 1. Absentee voting is already underway.