All 11 candidates for this October’s Ketchikan City Council election logged on for a virtual KRBD forum Monday. One issue the candidates addressed was the future of Ketchikan’s city-owned cruise ship docks.
Local elections in Ketchikan don’t usually garner much interest — often, many races are uncontested.
Not this year.
Eight candidates are seeking a full term on the Ketchikan City Council: incumbents Dick Coose and Dave Kiffer, plus challengers Jai Mahtani, Abby Bradberry, Riley Gass, Spencer Strassburg, Joey Jean Tillson and Lisa Scarborough.
The top three vote-getters in that race will get a seat on the council.
Another three candidates — incumbent Mark Flora and challengers Grant EchoHawk and Mary Stephenson — are seeking a single two-year seat.
Perhaps the biggest issue the new City Council will tackle is the future of Ketchikan’s city-owned cruise ship docks. City officials and financial analysts are currently reviewing two companies’ proposals to take over management of the downtown docks in exchange for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in financial packages.
Candidates were split on the idea.
“So the short answer is absolutely not under any circumstance,” said Riley Gass. He argued that the city could pull more money from cruise lines by raising head taxes. He said the city hadn’t raised rates often enough in recent years.
Abby Bradberry made a similar argument. She also said cruise lines were willing to help the city with some projects, citing five-figure donations from Royal Caribbean to local nonprofits.
Jai Mahtani said he agreed with Gass and Bradberry. He owns a downtown jewelry store, and offered his own opposition:
“They will guide the people to their own stores,” he said. “The free economy will be a controlled economy.”
To be clear, the request for proposals issued last year mandated that the dock operator not run retail stores or tours. But downtown merchants have argued that cruise ship berth assignments sometimes unfairly advantage some stores over others.
Spencer Strassburg pitched a preferential berthing arrangement — a system in which a cruise line invests in dock improvements in exchange for priority over other lines. He cited the new Norwegian Cruise Line-backed dock in Ward Cove as an example.
In fact, Ketchikan’s city council asked for preferential berthing bids at the same time it solicited proposals for dock management. But no lines bid.
Grant EchoHawk said he opposed turning over dock management to an out-of-state company.
“That incentivizes that company to make their decisions in their own interest,” he said. “By the city controlling the docks, we can then control those interests. We can determine where the money goes, how it’s spent.”
The two bids came from U.K.-based Global Ports Holding and Ketchikan-based Survey Point Holdings.
Joey Jean Tillson said she favored retaining city management of the downtown docks, as well.
“We need to be creating the jobs, and we need to definitely do some more analysis on exactly what exactly we need to do to generate the revenue,” she said.
Lisa Scarborough said she was on the fence. Like Tillson, she said she wanted to make sure port jobs were available to locals. She said she wanted the city to ensure the docks would continue to be open to the public.
Both companies that submitted bids to manage Ketchikan’s port have pledged to ensure as much public access as possible.
Mary Stephenson said she was impressed by the two companies’ proposals. She said she’d like to see the city continue to operate the port, but she said she’d like to see city staff trained in port management.
“So that we can then sit at their table and say we know what you know that we know that you also know we know. So we’re on the same playing field. Vote for independence,” she said.
Incumbent City Council Members Dave Kiffer, Dick Coose, and Mark Flora each declined to commit one way or another — coming out publicly in favor or against private dock management, they said, could jeopardize the fairness of the bidding process.
That, plus the fact that the final review of the proposals is still in progress, and it’s not clear which proposal will come out looking the best for the city, financially.
Kiffer noted that the city did raise port fees last year over cruise lines’ objections, and a prior rate hike had led lines to cut the number of ships calling on Ketchikan.
“It’s always very dangerous to just back yourself into a hole and say, ‘I’m definitely not going to do X, Y or Z.’ Because X, Y or Z might turn out to be good for you,” he said. “And no, there is no intention of turning over control with a capital ‘C’ outside the community.”
Coose said he’d like to see the final proposals made public before the council signs a deal.
“Everybody’s going to see them and comment on them, and then we’ll make a decision, and it will be the best one for the city in the long run,” he said.
Flora put it this way:
“I want to see money come off the port that goes to the city’s general fund,” he said.
As it stands, fees paid by cruise lines and passengers can’t be spent on projects that don’t directly benefit ships. That’s the result of a federal court ruling following the cruise industry’s challenge of Juneau’s local head tax.
However, it’s not clear whether lease payments or upfront fees charged to port operators would be subject to the same restrictions. Ketchikan’s city attorney didn’t respond to calls for comment.
Election Day is October 6.
In the interest of full disclosure, Grant EchoHawk is a member of KRBD’s nonprofit board of directors, which does not direct the station’s news coverage.
The 11 candidates touched on a number of subjects during Monday’s forum, including homelessness in Ketchikan, community service and their ideas to diversify Ketchikan’s cruise-heavy economy. Listen to the whole forum below, on the KRBD Evening Report podcast feed, or on KRBD’s Facebook page.