Skagway Assembly: We don’t trust you having the final say on large waterfront leases

The above headline is not intended to be mean-spirited or to imply that the good people on our assembly are untrustworthy. It comes from 35 years of watching Skagway politics and port propositions, and a knowledge of negotiations past and present about the future of our waterfront.

It is common knowledge in this community that the 1968 tidelands lease with White Pass was a giveaway marshaled by many on the city council and a mayor who were on the company payroll. Back then, a newspaper and a public with any backbone would have said so, but they didn’t. While the 55-year agreement may have been viewed as “good for Skagway” at the time, in the long view it was not. There should have been caveats in that lease that transferred ownership back to the city if the railroad ever pulled out of the ore hauling business, which occurred in 1982 and devastated this community.

Fast forward a few years. A revitalized Faro mine reopens in the Yukon in 1986 and the assembly votes to support year-round opening of the highway for trucking. But after a couple years, the mine does not like dealing with White Pass, and the mine’s owner proposes that the city lease AIDEA a large chunk of waterfront in the middle of the port for a new ore and fuel terminal. The mine owner sways the mayor and some on the council, but at least the city fathers and mothers have the sense to take this issue to the voters. However, the mine owner is not comfortable. He pays to poll the community and gets his answer before an embarrassing vote. Seventy percent say no to the idea, and the proposal is pulled days before the election. A separate and more sensible compromise agreement is forged that leads to the eventual takeover of the existing ore terminal by AIDEA. Good thing, too. The mine goes into receivership a couple years later, and its owner has to give up his perch in a Swiss chalet. Skagway could have ended up with two vacant ore terminals on its waterfront.

Looking down the road, the 1990 council decides, in its wisdom, to take any public land lease of $250,000 value or more to the voters in the future.

Now here we are again. We have mines that want to use the port: a good thing. Most appear to have responsible people working with our municipality, but there are one or two that make us nervous. They may be asking too much of our waterfront, like the need for a separate docking facility when we have a pretty solid Gateway Project plan on the drawing board.

Somehow this nervousness has passed on to our assembly and mayor, and some of them fear that the requirement for voter approval of a $250,000 or greater value lease could spoil any deal with a mine, White Pass or AIDEA regarding the future of the port.

Our port. Our future. And our loss if the assembly passes an ordinance that would repeal the requirement for voter approval.

Shame on you for thinking the voters of this community should not have the final say on the most important decisions of our future. And for thinking that it is okay for waterfront land deals – negotiated in secret – to be rubber-stamped at the assembly table with minimal public input.

If a new or altered large waterfront lease is a good enough deal for the municipality, then the assembly can share every little detail with the voters and let the people decide. Our electoral right to have the final say on leases greater than $250,000 was put in the code for good reason.

If you don’t kill this ordinance outright at second reading, then at least consider raising the limit to $1 million for the large waterfront leases – if that makes you less nervous. But, really, it should be the voters who decide if even a change in value is a good idea. - WJB