A Sitka chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, as well as the local group Bags for Change, are pushing for environmental policy. They are seeking the support of the Sitka Assembly, but opinions on the body are mixed. (Photo courtesy of Citizens Climate Lobby Facebook page)

Several grassroots environmental initiatives came before the Sitka Assembly last night (02-27-18), resulting in heated discussion about carbon taxes and plastic bags. The Assembly took action on both issues.

The national carbon fee and dividend policy was created by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. It proposes putting a federal price on carbon-based fuels, with anticipated revenues being returned to homes through a monthly dividend.

Citizens testified passionately about a local resolution to support this national policy, many seeing it as a chance for Sitka to call for action on climate change. “It’s pretty clear that spaceship earth is in trouble what with global warming, acidification of the water, Northwest passage is opening, catastrophic storms,” Sitkan Jay Stelzenmuller told the Assembly. “So it’s pretty clear something needs to be done and this looks like a good something to shoot for.”

While all on the Assembly recognized the perils of climate change and that action was necessary, not all agreed that CCL’s initiative was the best action to take.

Assembly member Richard Wein voiced his doubts that American purchasing power could solve a global energy problem. “If there are three reasons why this will be problematic. They’re called China, Russia, and India,” Wein said. Fellow Assembly member Aaron Bean was not persuaded that a fee and dividend system could work.

In the end, the Assembly did decide to support CCL’s policy by a vote of 6 to 1, with Wein voting against. As a member of the voting majority, Bean asked for the resolution to reconsidered at their next meeting. It has been tabled for a vote until their March 13th meeting.

The Assembly also took a position on plastic bags, heeding calls from a local environmental group called Bags for Change. They have formed a committee to consider a plastic bag fee in Sitka. No further details on how much the fee were decided nor what the ordinance would look like. Some on the Assembly said they would personally like to see the fee put on the fall ballot for voters to decide. Assembly members Kevin Knox, Bob Potrzuski, and Richard Wein volunteered to participate in that committee.

Assembly member Kevin Knox hoped a fee would encourage people to change their shopping behavior and spoke to the long-term environmental impacts of plastics. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time swimming in these oceans and I have seen these bags, under the water, while I’ve swam by. I’ve actually run into them, which is really, really unpleasant. The first thing that goes through your mind is that you’ve just run through a jellyfish, which is rather uncomfortable. You’re thankful it’s just a bag, but then you’re not. I would really like to see something go forward,” Knox said.

A few on the Assembly spoke against a plastic bag ban, as was passed in Wasilla last month.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz worried about the impact to small businesses, while Aaron Bean said the transition to a cloth or reusable bag would be tough on working families. “There’s a lot of people out there in our community that are working two jobs that have a hard enough time to maintain their schedule, much less remembering that I have to bring my reusable bags to the store so I can afford milk,” Bean said.

The Sitka Assembly also approved hiring two outside consultants to guide the RFP process for Sitka Community Hospital. Sarah Cave and Steve Huebner will be paid up to $100,000 to vet proposals and pick and affiliation partner.

Mayor Matthew Hunter echoed the message that the hospital is in danger of closing, so the Assembly must consider other options. “The uniform opinion message here is that, Sitka Community Hospital as it exists today, is non-viable. Period. There’s a lot of support for the institution. I share a lot of that support. There’s a lot of people with belief and faith in this institution. If it’s going to exist, something needs to change,” Hunter said. “I’m not going to tell anyone how to change this place, without doing my due diligence, which means figuring out what the options are.”

The motion carried 5-2, with Bean and Wein voting against.

The Assembly also unanimously voted lease lot 3 of the Gary Paxton Industrial Park to the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association to expand their operations. They also unanimously supported Senate Bill 92, which slaps registration requirements on owners of abandoned and derelict vessels.

Their meeting concluded with a discussion about whether to impose a hiring and travel freeze on city employees. City Administrator Keith Brady said such a move would hurt morale at the city and services for the public. “We already have a lot of very dedicated staff that work many hours after 5 o’clock, that are even there after I leave. And it will have unintended consequences for the hiring freeze,” Brady told the Assembly. The idea, sponsored by Wein and Bean, didn’t gain traction.

In committee news, the Assembly re-appointed Bob Sam to the Historic Preservation Commission, Gary Paxton to the Employment Relations Board, and Nancy Douglas to the Historic Preservation Commission.

The Assembly will next meet on March 6th for a government-to-government dinner with Sitka Tribe of Alaska.