Private tour unsettles council
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
Unhappy about his support for Jesse Lee Home, Council members Marianna Keil and Vanta Shafer voice their opinions to Mayor David Seaward at Monday night’s council meeting.
Fifteen Alaska state senate and house representatives and candidates toured the aging Jesse Lee Home and new office in Seward Sept. 4, along with select members of the Anchorage media. It was part of an invitation-only promotional bus tour from Anchorage sponsored by the Friends of Jesse Lee Home — the nonprofit group that hopes to renovate the historic former orphanage in Seward, and create a statewide leadership school for high school juniors there.
The tour, which included a free luncheon, and visits to the Alaska SeaLife Center, Bear Creek Fire Department, and University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Marine Science Center, created some positive press coverage for Seward near the time of its 100th anniversary of incorporation, thanks to the TV reporters from ABC News who attended. Those reports emphasized the Jesse Lee Home renovation, and members of the Alaska delegation praised the proposed Balto Leadership School as though it were a done deal, rather than a dream with a long way to go in terms of engineering, planning and funding.
Seward Mayor David Seaward, a strong personal supporter of the project was invited and went along on the tour. He had formerly been censured by city council, and banned from travelling on the city’s behalf, for voicing his support for the project, which was not on the city’s official capital project list, while on his first lobbying trip in Juneau.
But Seward City Manager Jim Hunt did not accept the group’s invitation. Rather, he sent Suzi Towsley, his administrative assistant, with gifts for the Alaska delegation.
Both the lead up to the private tour, and its aftermath underscored the continuing sour relationships between the City of Seward and Friends of Jesse Lee, and between the city administration and Mayor David Seaward.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, Hunt said he had informed Friends of Jesse Lee organizers that in order to accept the group’s invitation, he would then have to follow normal procedures for public meetings: The tour would have to be noticed in the media ahead of time, council members and the public would have to be informed and invited, and the city council would probably want to hold a reception in council chambers. That’s what the city traditionally does when Alaska Senator Begich, or other Alaska lawmakers come to town. But the organizers rejected his suggestion that it become a public, city event, and repeated that it was a private tour, and that he and the mayor still were invited to go along.
Ironically, the manager did race downtown that afternoon to say hello to Senator Cathy Giessel and House Speaker Mike Chenault, both of whom, if elected, would lead districts that include Seward. The relationships that the city had been building with the Alaska delegation had never been better, Hunt said, and he thanked council member Marianna Keil for alerting him of the whereabouts of the important visitors.
But the matter did not end there.
Following his mayor’s report, councilmember Christy Terry asked Seaward if he knew why the group had not again requested to purchase the building from the city. Seaward replied he did not know. Assistant City Manager Ron Long reminded council that the last time the Jesse Lee group had dealings with the city, they had haggled over the price for purchasing the building, and had reached an impasse.
Terry then asked whether the group planned to run the leadership school through the school district in Galena, or through the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The mayor said he did not know the answer to that either.
But he attended a private meeting, and technically they had violated the Open Meetings Act, Keil stated.
It was not a sit-down meeting, Seaward repeated. The visit was just a show-and-tell by the group about their project and Seward’s resources, and he was not privy to the Jesse Lee board’s plans, he said.
Keil then took the mayor to task for allegedly saying publically that Seward’s unemployment rate went up to about 50 percent after the tourist season ends, while the actual unemployment rate was 10 percent according to the Alaska Department of Labor, and for characterizing Seward as so seasonal that it rolls up the sidewalks in the winter time.
Seaward had thus far missed 30 Friday noon meetings to which the city manager had invited him, and he should at the least call to inform Hunt that would not be making those meetings, council member Vanta Shafer rejoined, referring to the mayor’s questioning of her for her newspaper, the Seward Journal’s decision to run an opinion piece that the city attorney had written on the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance’s ongoing lawsuit with the city. Shafer again stated that the letter was a matter of public record. Shafer said the city clerk should sign the mayor up to attend another training for newly elected officials on public records and open meetings, since he had missed the one that the council had sent him to after his election almost a year ago.
Jesse Lee Executive Director Kirsten Vesel told the LOG that she was surprised to learn that her group had not invited the local media, Seward City News and The Seward Phoenix LOG, on their tour. Those arrangements were made by Dorene Lorenz, the chair of Friends of Jesse’ Lee’s board of directors, who also co-hosts “Alaska’s Political Insider,” a daily news show aired on AlaskaLink.com, said a member of the Friends of Jesse Lee Home staff. It broadcasts over KYUR ABC 13, KATN ABC 2, KJUD, ABC 8, Fox 4, KTBY and CW Alaska. Two of its reporters covered the event.