In April, the Sitka Assembly passed a law that would fine those using their phone while driving. Exceptions are made for hands-free use. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

In May, the Sitka Assembly banned citizens from having a device in hand while driving, but without specifying a fine structure. Last night (01-10-17), the Assembly mapped that out.

If drivers are caught with a cell phone in hand, the fine is $50. For the second offense, it’s $100 and for the third, $200. For subsequent offenses, the defendant must appear in court. The maximum penalty is $500 and prior offenses must be within five years.

This ban applies even when the driver of the vehicle is stopped at a sign or a traffic light. Sitka drivers can, however, legally use a phone hands-free – with voice or Bluetooth technology. The distracted driving law, which was developed by the Health and Human Services Commission, also does not apply for emergency situations and emergency personnel.

The Assembly also learned that the Sitka Fire Department received an unusually high number of calls this year. Fire Chief Dave Miller said there were 1400 calls and over 90% were for EMS. “Call volume is sort of up across the board in EMS. If there is one thing, it’s probably alcohol. I think our alcohol call volume is up quite a bit. But drugs aren’t a big thing with us right now. And everything else is sort of spread across the board.”

The Fire Department has also been called to unlock cars and houses, as well as check carbon monoxide and other detectors.

The Assembly also approved, on first reading, purchasing a car for the Chief of Police. The city recently sold a fire truck to Haines for $25,000 and plans to divert about two thirds of that money towards a used vehicle for Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt.

During persons to be heard, Shirley Robards spoke out against further taxes and raising electric rates. “I think you guys really need to think about touching the permanent fund. That’s what it’s for, a rainy day. And it’s raining, hard.”

And finally, Assembly member Aaron Bean withdrew his proposal to set up an MQE – or municipal quota entry – for the city. See proposal here: Municipal Quota Entity

At the last meeting of the year (12-22-16), Bean co-sponsored an ordinance with fellow Assembly member Kevin Knox that would call upon the city to buy halibut and black cod quota shares and lease them to local fisherman.

A handful of fisherman, as well as the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, spoke out against that idea. In an interview with KCAW, Director Linda Behnken said that allowing organizations to buy shares hurts independent fisherman and drives up market prices. “Anytime you add more buying power into the market, particularly if it’s an entity that has different borrowing status than an individual, you’re going to raise that cost of entry,”Behnken said. “You’re going to make it that much more difficult for people in these communities to gain that access.”

Bean disagrees. His thinks that the best way to lower the cost of entry is by allowing the city to purchase and lease shares. The way it’s done now, he says, the prevents locals from getting involved. Bean said, “The unforeseen consequence of the IFQ program, in my mind, haunts a lot of people today. They put a monetary value on individuals average catch for a year and gave them that quota and closed the door to everyone else on the planet.”

Behnken agrees that the barrier for entry to the fishing fleet is too high, but that the best way to solve it is by providing financial support to independent fisherman. ALFA has established a local fish fund and a national program to support young fisherman recently received bipartisan congressional support.  

Ultimately, Bean withdrew his proposal for an MQE last night after Knox withdrew his co-sponsorship. But he wants the Assembly to consider forming a Community Quota Entity, or CQE. That’s when a community forms a non-profit to buy and lease shares. There are 47 communities that qualify for a CQE and of those, 29 have established CQEs that hold charter halibut permits. All qualifying communities have populations below 1500. Under current guidelines from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Sitka is too big to qualify.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, Raven News stated that there were 42 communitie with CQEs, or community quota entities. This is incorrect.