Sitka | In advance of next week’s municipal election, Raven Radio has been profiling candidates for office. Gary Paxton is one of those candidates. He’s running for the Sitka Assembly as a write-in candidate, and until two days ago (Wednesday) had been traveling in the Middle East.
Extended audio: Click here to listen to Gary Paxton’s entire interview with KCAW.
Gary Paxton grew up in Sitka, left for a 30-year career with the U.S. Army, and then returned in 1992 to serve as Sitka’s municipal administrator – a job he held until 2001.
Now, he’s running a write-in campaign for the Sitka Assembly.
“Why would an old man like me, who enjoys his leisure time, want to do this?” he joked on Friday.
Three reasons, Paxton says. The first reason is that when he declared his write-in candidacy, there were only three candidates on the ballot for three seats. He says people should have a choice.
“The second is, I want a more open and supportive city government, committed to improving our town and solving problems,” he said. “I think we’ve been short there the last few years.”
Paxton says during his time on the board of trustees of Sheldon Jackson College he felt it was tough to get the city to join collaborative efforts. He says the city can help in ways beyond money, by committing time and talent to try to solve widespread problems. Paxton’s third reason for running is that he wants to make sure the city’s budget realistically reflects community needs.
“Listen, in government, there’s an unlimited ability to do good; things that are important,” Paxton said. “But you always have to balance what government wants to do versus the ability of its citizens to pay for it.”
He says a lot of Sitkans are on fixed incomes, and that he wants to make sure the budget is properly formed.
“I also believe you need to fund city government. City government has an important role to play,” he said. “We want to educate our kids, we want to have our recreational facilities, we want to do all those things we want to do, but we’ve got to be sure we’re doing it after ensuring that we’ve minimized the cost to the citizens.”
Bringing those two goals into balance – aiming high on what city government can do for citizens while still keeping the cost TO citizens low – is tricky. Paxton says when he was municipal administrator, he and the city finance department tried to make sure they were looking ahead.
“And we did not do everything perfectly, but the issue was we tried to at least be able to anticipate two or three years ahead of time when we needed to increase a fund so we were able to put the information out and provide good information to the city about why we did it.”
Paxton’s tenure in city hall began with a crisis – the closure of the Alaska Pulp Mill. The mill’s shutdown dealt a major economic blow to Sitka and while the larger economy bounced back from the mill closure, Paxton says now there are new problems to address.
“The reduction in the tourism in the last two years is being felt on Main Street, it’s being felt in some of the businesses in the community, and some of the charter fleet,” he said.
He says he sees Sitka as a diverse community; one that thrives from the intersections of fishing, service-based jobs, education, Native culture and contributions, the arts, and more.
“But all these things we embrace in our town cost money. I’m clearly committed to, aggressive about, how can we sustain and improve our economy, within the ethos of small-town atmosphere, quality of life, and improving the economy.”
In addition to Sitka’s economic concerns, Paxton says he’s also mindful of the city’s energy crisis. Demand for electricity comes close to outpacing the city’s hydropower generation abilities. Paxton says he applauds efforts to raise the dam at Blue Lake – a major project the Assembly has considered among its top priorities in recent years.
City officials are exploring changes to the electrical rate structure in Sitka; Paxton says that’s exactly what should happen. But longer-term solutions – to both energy and economic needs – could involve controversial changes at the state and regional levels.
“Strategically, the Southeast intertie and getting a road up to Lynn Canal are the two things that could solve a lot of the problems of Southeast Alaska,” he said.
The Southeast intertie would connect electrical grids throughout the region and could help lower the cost of power for smaller rural communities. A highway extending north from Juneau, into Lynn Canal, could better link Southeast Alaska to the rest of the state and continent.
“The other thing that is certainly controversial and needs to be dealt with publicly and fully, is if you get a road across Baranof (Island), if you were to choose to do that, then … a road from Kake to Petersburg, all of a sudden we’re into short stretches of the Marine Highway System where you can move goods and services and people more freely, economically and so-forth. So that’s the long-term strategy that would really solve the problem.”
He says he supports both the Southeast intertie and a road system that makes transportation easier in Sitka.
Paxton is one of two write-in candidates for Assembly, along with Phyllis Hackett. Printed on the ballot will be the names of Pete Esquiro, Mike Reif and Andrew Traugutt. The municipal election is Oct. 4th.