Tuesday night's Assembly meeting featured hours of debate and public comment on the subject, including testimony from Sealaska shareholders and board members, who happened to be attending a company event in the room down the hall.
In its original form, the Assembly’s resolution said the city opposed the current versions of the Sealaska lands legislation.
What ultimately passed last night removed the word “oppose” and instead says the Assembly has concerns about the measures.
The gentler language came in amendment from Assembly member Thor Christianson as the meeting approached a mandatory 11 p.m. adjournment time. The Assembly started discussion on the Sealaska resolution around 8 p.m., and heard testimony from more than 40 people. The group was roughly split on whether the Assembly should oppose the legislation.
The members of the public who spoke included Sealaska board members who were in town for a shareholder meeting coincidentally held just down the hall from the Assembly meeting. One of them, Jodi Mitchell, said Sealaska helped put her through college, and provides opportunities for its shareholders to advance. She urged the Assembly not to oppose the legislation that’s now in Congress, saying the land selections could bring economic opportunities to small villages, where the costs of living are high.
“High electric costs, high cost of food, high cost of transportation, high cost of fuel: they have so few opportunities, they have so few jobs,” Mitchell said. “My fear is that this opposition is going to take even more away. Not just not allow them to have jobs, but you’re taking away their hope.”
But others had concerns about the legislation could impact access to popular recreational and subsistence sites.
“I respectfully request that the Assembly express to Congress that these lands should remain available to all Sitka citizens,” said Davey Lubin, who runs a sea taxi business that includes marine and hiking tours.
Lubin said he was worried Sealaska would restrict access, despite the corporation’s assurances that it would not. The federal legislation, he says, puts too much land under the control of too few people.
“It’s not good for business, it’s not good for access, it’s not good for overall subsistence, and it’s not good for recreation, and it’s not good for the community,” he said.
Still others, such as Nels Lawson, leader of the Sitka Kaagwantaan, said he was disappointed people were speculating about what the company might do.
“And it befuddles my mind, how if you’re not a Sealaska Corporation director, how you know those things; how you know that Sealaska is going to restrict access,” Lawson said.
People stood at the back of the room and along the wall awaiting their turn to testify. Some spoke about the validity of the federal legislation, others urged support or opposition from the Assembly. Some said the Assembly’s resolution wasn’t researched well enough, and Sealaska lands manager Michelle Metz refuted the claims of others that once the land is conveyed to Sealaska, the company could sell it. She said it will not.
Metz also addressed public access, saying “it’s guaranteed in the legislation. We can’t just say tomorrow ‘You can’t come here.’ It will be in the law. You’d be assured of public access.”
But beyond what the law says or doesn’t say, a larger discussion seemed to emerge Tuesday night: community division. Some argued that the resolution only said the Assembly opposes the current version of the Sealaska bills, not the larger concept, and therefore wasn’t divisive. Some said if the Assembly opposed the Sealaska bill, a divide would deepen. Others said the legislation passed in Washington, D.C., that would cause a deep division.
And some said because of that, they felt a lot of anxiety over where they should stand on the issue.
“Ever since I heard about this legislation, I’ve had an ache inside that I cannot even express in words,” said Sitka resident Richard Nelson. “I believe responsible and thoughtful people will say that whatever it is that brings us together and unifies us as people is unequivocally good. And that whatever divides us and separates us as members of a community, as neighbors, is unequivocally bad. And only for that reason will I speak in support of this resolution, and only in hopes that we together will find a solution that is to the benefit of all of us and that does not divide us.”
After public testimony and some Assembly debate, Thor Christianson and Pete Esquiro asked that the measure be postponed indefinitely. But others, including Mayor Cheryl Westover, said the Assembly needed to act quickly as the bill was up for subcommittee hearings in both the House and Senate within the next 48 hours, and that the Assembly’s voice should be heard before then.
Postponement failed, and with moments to go before a mandated 11 p.m. adjournment, the Assembly voted unanimously in support of the softer language – expressing concern about the bills, but not opposition.
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