Assembly candidates (from left): Steve Lee, Aaron Bean, Benjamin Miyasato, Kevin Knox, and Thor Christianson, spoke at the Wednesday (9/25/19) Chamber of Commerce Luncheon (KCAW Photo)

Days before Sitkans cast their ballots, candidates for the Sitka Assembly were put in the hot seat one final time at this week’s Sitka Chamber of Commerce forum (9-25-19).

The public asked and the candidates answered. City staffing, economic development, the state budget, population decreases, climate change and plastic bag bans- these topics and more were on the minds of Sitkans as they sized up the five candidates running for the Sitka Assembly in the days leading up to the municipal election.

Moderator Keith Perkins led off with questions from the Chamber board about economic development. What would candidates do to support business in Sitka? 

“I would try and foster an environment where somebody who is running a business or is trying to start a business can go down to the city and what they’ll hear is how can we help,” said Thor Christianson. “Obviously there’s things that we can do- like try and get the haul out facility out at Gary Paxton Industrial Park going if we can, but mainly stay out of the way and help where we can.” 

Christianson — who’s served previously on the assembly — was one of several candidates who saw building a boat haul-out at Sawmill Cove as way the assembly could support local businesses if they could find the funding. A haul out and boat yard are priorities of the GPIP board after Halibut Point Marine announced they’d stop hauling out boats in the next two years, sending Sitka’s fleet to facilities in Hoonah, Petersburg, and Wrangell. At the Raven Radio Forum Monday (9/23/19), incumbent Kevin Knox said the project could be a public private partnership, though he preferred it be private, considering state funding would be a challenge. And incumbent Aaron Bean said the haul out should be put in the hands of private industry, not funded by the city government.

Bean believed that there also was untapped economic potential out Silver Bay. 

“If we’re talking ‘pie in the sky’ ideas and things we can do as a community,” he said, “I don’t necessarily see it as something we can do as an assembly– removing the restriction that’s in Silver Bay and entertaining and at least getting some community buy in on the idea of some shaft mining back there.” 

First-time candidate Steve Lee suggested that a weekly meeting with business leaders would be a good idea.

Other candidates saw problems with staffing at city hall. Candidate Ben Miyasato — a former assembly member — said they needed to hire a city administrator and a human resources director soon. And he said getting rid of the “position” subcommittee would be a crucial part of supporting city staff and attracting new candidates for the vacant planning.  

“We need to put back within the city staff the ability to get people here, to Sitka,” he said. “You let them have ownership of who they hire.” 

Christianson agreed with that perspective and questioned the subcommittee’s legality. Knox shared that concern.

“At worst we’ve overstepped the roles and responsibilities of this assembly. I think, in my view, and I voted this way, in creating the subcommittee, I think we’re actually in violation of the charter,” he said. “I personally believe we need to take a step back and we need to delegate that role to the administrator. 

Aaron Bean supported the committee in April when the assembly instituted a city-wide hiring freeze. And at the chamber forum, spoke positively about the committee as a way to keep the city budget under control.

Lee said the public should vote on who gets the city administrator job, which would require amending Sitka’s charter — also with a vote of the people.

Lee and Bean both said they would vote no on Proposition 1, which would ban retailers from supplying single use plastic bags and charge a fee for paper bags. Knox and Miyasato would vote yes, and Christianson said he would support the voters decision, but didn’t specify how he would vote. 

As in previous elections, affordability was a big talking point. At its annual meeting in Sitka last week, the Southeast Conference reported that Sitka’s population between 2014 and 2018 had dropped by over 400 people. Other communities in the region are also in decline. Why the drop? All of the candidates mentioned affordability and challenges to local and state economies.

“We need to find a solution to lower the price somehow. We can do it as a team if we communicate and compromise to that answer to lower the price,” Lee said.

The Municipal Election is Tuesday, October 1.