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Assembly eliminates long-range planning group

SITKA, ALASKA
It was a debate over a debate last night – testimony and Assembly deliberation over whether to even have another conversation about the Long-Range Planning and Economic Development Commission.

The majority of the Assembly voted to disband the group at its February 22nd meeting. Assembly member Phyllis Hackett asked that the issue be reconsidered last night.

Members of the public urged the same.

“Planning for the future is an ongoing need in this community, and to think that the commission is no longer needed or has fulfilled its mission is naïve at best and short-sighted at worst,” said Sitka resident Keith Nyitray. He said he and his partner were looking for property on which to build a rental unit to provide income for themselves and affordable housing for others. But he said because Long-Range Planning commission recommendations were never implemented, they couldn't.

“And therefore we didn’t,” he told the Assembly. “And we’re now looking at other communities to do the same thing. This is a loss for Sitka, it’s a loss for the construction industry in this town, and the people who need affordable housing. Without a commission to continually plan for and push for the needs of this community’s future, many other opportunities will be lost as well.”

Mayor Cheryl Westover, joining the meeting by phone from Juneau, said there are groups that can carry on those duties, such as the Sitka Economic Development Association, although that group doesn’t answer directly to the Assembly. Westover also said there are long-range plans in place.

“For the people that talk about where we don’t have plans I would suggest that they go to our Harbor Department or our Public Works Department or our Electric Department or our Water Department, and see that in those specific instances there are very specific long-term plans,” Westover said.

Not everyone agreed, including Assembly member Phyllis Hackett. She said Westover’s points might have some validity, that the plans do exist, and that there are groups engaged in long-range planning work. But Hackett said eliminating the commission erases the public process that lets citizens weigh in on important questions Sitka could face down the road.

“Just for one example off the top of my head, we know we have an aging community,” Hackett said. “We have a seriously aging community. What is that going to look like in 20 years? What is that going to look like in 30 years? What is our infrastructure going to look like at that point in time? How is our tax structure going to be supported? How are our services going to be supported? There’s a lot of things to consider with one long-term issue. Who is going to look at that?”

It won’t hurt to hear more from the public, Hackett said, urging the Assembly to vote in favor of reconsidering the commission’s future and allowing more debate. But Assembly member Thor Christianson said there have been plenty of opportunities for public participation – at the earlier meetings where the Long-Range Planning and Economic Development Commission was discussed.

“Ample opportunity,” he said. “More than most ordinances. I don’t think that this has not had enough chance for public participation to warrant a vote for reconsideration.”

Hackett and Mim McConnell voted to reconsider, the others did not, and the Long-Range Planning and Economic Development Commission disappeared out of city code.

So did the next two agenda items. In what is a fairly unusual occurrence, no one moved to take up the next item on the agenda, which was reconsideration of changes to the city’s economic development loan fund. Those changes include requiring interest to be charged on the loans and requiring that they be paid back in full. Since no one moved to reconsider, the changes will take effect.

A third agenda item would have moved some long-range planning duties to the planning commission. McConnell moved to take up the item, but no one offered a second, and the motion died.

The meeting went on, and included discussion of whether Sitka should ask for an independent audit of its planning process. The idea didn’t seem to get much traction among the Assembly as a whole. But it was just a discussion item, and no official action was taken.
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