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City, Tribal governments share dinner, issues

Mayor Mim McConnell (center) talks during the government to government dinner between the Sitka Assembly and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council. From left to right are Assembly member Phyllis Hackett, Tribal Council Chairman Mike Baines, Tribal Council Member Clara Gray, Municipal Attorney Theresa Hillhouse, McConnell, Tribal Council Member Mike Miller, and Sitka Tribe General Manager Ted Wright.

The Blue Lake dam expansion, utility rates and tsunami preparedness. Those were the subjects of dinnertime conversation between the Sitka Assembly and the Tribal Council on Thursday.

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The Assembly and the Tribal Council meet twice a year in what’s known as a government-to-government dinner. Neither group of elected officials takes any binding action at the dinner. Instead, both sides use it as an opportunity to touch upon issues that matter to their constituents.

Mike Baines is chairman of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

“(We have) open communication between us and the Assembly and between me and the Mayor and our staff and their staff,” Baines said. “Our staff meets pretty regularly with their staff. I hope those things continue, and continue to grow.”

The city briefed the Tribe on the Blue Lake dam expansion, construction of which is now underway. The Tribe, meanwhile, raised questions about increases in utility rates, and told the city it would be helpful to have more support in place for low-income residents.

Tsunami preparedness also came up. Tribal council member Rachel Moreno was among those to raise questions about transportation in the event of another evacuation. She said many in her neighborhood were on foot, and unprepared. Moreno said she lives on higher ground, and that during the evacuation, she had about 50 people in and around her home, not all of whom she knew.

The city and the Tribe also talked about opportunities for joint lobbying. Both sides appeared to agree it would send a stronger message to Washington, D.C., if both municipal and tribal officials visited Alaska’s Congressional delegation together.

And even the idea of a community center for teens came up. The Tribe’s general manager, Ted Wright, mentioned the old airplane turnaround at Katlian and Halibut Point Road as a possible location. The location already hosts a skateboarding park. Tribal Council member Benjimen Miyasato said a teen center would be good for Sitka.

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell said the twice-yearly dinner is important event for both governments.

“It helps us be more effective leaders, and it’s respectful,” she said. “It’s acknowledging that we’re equals in our community, and that communication is so important to do a good job and get the job done.”

Meetings between the city and tribal governments have not always been cordial. In 2005, the Tribal Council and three Assembly members walked out of the dinner after then-Mayor Marko Dapcevich adhered strictly to meeting procedures at the usually informal event, banging his cell phone as a gavel, demanding order when others tried to speak.

Cell phones stayed out of sight on Thursday. After the meal adjourned, McConnell said the relationship has come a long way.

“If people that are listening to this could see what’s happening in the room right now, as I stand here now, people are still in the room and they’re having these little pockets of conversations, with an Assembly member talking to a tribal member,” McConnell said. “There are three or four different conversations going on. And we’re done, but that conversation is still going on. And that’s fantastic.”

Tribal Council Chairman Mike Baines agrees.

“It’s just good to get together,” he said. “Our relationship has improved quite a bit over the last few years since we’ve been doing this. I hope we continue to do it.”

The meeting at the Fly-In Fish Inn took about three hours, including the meal, which was a choice of nut-encrusted halibut, grilled chicken breast or roasted veggie tort.

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