A new Congress begins tomorrow and former DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan will be sworn in as Alaska’s eighth U.S. senator since statehood. Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson says guests for the event include Sullivan’s family, Gov. Bill Walker and several state legislators.
On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, the entire House of Representatives is to be sworn in tomorrow, but Alaska Congressman Don Young won’t be present, says spokesman Matt Shuckerow.
“Unfortunately, the congressman – his older brother just recently passed away. It was something unexepected and very sudden. We are saddened to hear that news and unfortunately the congressman will be absent this first week of the new Congress,” he said.
84-year-old Russell Young of Meridian, California, died a few days ago after a brief illness, Young’s office says. The Congressman’s younger brother in 2010. Shuckerow says Young will take the oath of office next week, likely on Monday.
“I think Alaskans understand that he’s dealing with a personal family matter and he’s excited to return here next week and to be sworn in and to get back working on the issues that are of concern to Alaskans,” Shuckerow said.
Young will miss the vote selecting the Speaker of the House. Republican John Boehner is expected to retain the gavel in what could be a close vote. Some of the more conservative Republicans have turned against Boehner, primarily for not fighting harder against President Obama on immigration. Shuckerow says Young would support Boehner over the other names that have surfaced as potential rivals.
With the Republican takeover of the Senate, Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, becomes chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She’ll immediately be in the national spotlight because the Republican leadership has decided the first bill it will take up is the Keystone XL pipeline. Murkowski has scheduled a hearing on the bill in her committee on Wednesday and, as chairman, she’ll manage the debate on the Senate floor. In November, a bill to approve the Keystone Pipeline fell one vote shy of the 60 needed to advance in the Senate. Proponents gained at least two Senate votes in the election.
Attorney General Craig Richards is in the process of hiring a special investigator to look into the handling of sexual assault complaints within the Alaska National Guard.
Grace Jang, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker, said Richards is vetting five candidates who have strong criminal investigation backgrounds and are in good standing with the Alaska Bar. She did not have a set timeline for the hiring but expected it to be soon.
She said the person selected will be more of a fact-finder and recommend whether a special prosecutor is needed.
Jang said the special investigator will be charged with looking into allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and cover-up, as well as whether the response of law enforcement was appropriate and procedures were followed.
High-intensity headlights are popular and getting more so, especially here in Alaska during the long, dark winter months. They’re called “moose lights,” because they help drivers see farther down the road than conventional headlights to spot animals and other hazards. But Alaska State Troopers say moose lights can also create a hazard by temporarily blinding oncoming motorists in the other lane.
Ben Knix works at the NAPA auto parts store in Delta Junction, and he says he likes the added visibility he gets with his Light Force 240 high-intensity discharge lights he’s got mounted on his pickup’s rollbar.
“Yeah, I mean I have them just to see more moose, and anything else you might encounter while driving,” he said. “And they do really great. I like ’em.”
Knix says the bright lights also are popular among his customers.
“Y’know, we do sell a lot of them,” he said. “A lot of people like ’em.”
But Dave Slater says those extremely bright headlights really bother him.
“These brights are so bright – I mean, they’re even brighter than regular, standard-beam bulbs on high,” Slater said. “And they’re blinding.”
That’s what worries Sgt. Jess Carson, with the Alaska State Troopers’ Fairbanks Bureau of Highway Patrol office. Carson says Troopers have been getting a half-dozen or so complaints like Slater’s annually over the past few years. But he says they can’t really do much more than sympathize with them.
“We just explain to them that we share their frustration,” he said. “We understand that it is very difficult to see around them. That it limits your vision while you’re passing them, when you’re next to them and then for a little ways after you pass them. It’s almost the equivalent of somebody pointing a high-output flashlight in your eyes. It takes a little while for your eyes to adjust after that.”
Carson says there are no state laws or regulations that set standards on those after-market lights and fixtures – nor any that authorize enforcement.
“The current laws in Alaska don’t have any statutes that would allow us to enforce it.”
He says federal regulations set some standards. But they mainly govern the types of headlights that auto manufacturers install.
“What happens is people add after-market lights to the vehicles,” he said. “And that’s where we’re running into the problems.”
Carson says the federal regs also apply to the colors of light emitted by after-market units. But only those that that emit greenish or yellowish colors. Not the bright blue-ish light that many complain of – but which the federal regs classify as white-ish.
“When you see the blue lights out there, although our eye picks up some blue, it still falls within the white spectrum,” he said.
Carson says headlight systems that manufacturers install in vehicles have been tested and certified as safest for all motorists. He says they provide enough light for drivers to see a safe distance ahead, while still allowing those in the oncoming lane to preserve their night vision.
He says that’s the balance that the federal regs seek to maintain – the balance that’s thrown out-of-whack by extremely bright headlights.
“The light is designed for the maximum output for the individual behind the wheel. And you have to run a happy medium there of your ability to see versus what you’re causing to other vehicles around you.”
Carson says that’s the basis of his counter-argument to those who say moose lights make driving safer: that those bright lights can blind the other drivers, causing them to hit the ditch – or an oncoming vehicle.
“So, although you’re able to see moose, you’re able to see a little farther, you’ve now put a several-ton piece of metal flying at you at 55 miles an hour, and ruin their ability to see their lane anymore,” he said.
Carson says unless and until motorists decide something needs to be done about extremely bright headlights, and get legislators to pass laws to regulate them, Troopers can’t do much about them – unless they happen to be nearby and see a motorist failing to dim them.
Slater, who complained about the bright headlights in a letter to the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, says he’s not arguing in support any sort of legislation. He says he’s just trying to point out the need for motorists to think of the other guy in the oncoming vehicle.
“Y’know I hate to have a new law imposed on people,” he said. “I would rather it be something that people just do out of courtesy to their fellow man.”
And on that point, both Carson and Knix, the auto-parts store worker, agree.
There is no longer an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation office in Bethel. State officials say they closed the office just before the holidays because of restructuring and budgetary issues.
But the former sole employee of the office says the closure will lower the level of service to the Southwest Alaska and could slow spill response time.
The State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation office of Spill Prevention and Response in Bethel closed December 31st.
Steve Russell is an Environmental Program Manager with the Anchorage DEC.
“There certainly was financial considerations playing a role in the idea of not relocating another person out to the Bethel office and Bob’s departure kind of sped that process,” said Russell
Bob Carlson, the sole employee at the Bethel DEC office, retired just before the office closed. Russel says his office already responds to the Aleutians, Bristol Bay, Kodiak and other communities off the road system, so adding the Y-K Delta isn’t that big of a deal. He says spill prevention and response will now be handled out of Anchorage.
“There are numerous flights a day to Bethel and we can get someone out there pretty quickly,” said Russell.
Carlson says shutting down the Bethel office is a mistake.
“I understand that the state in a financial emergency and we’re going to have to do things differently. I’m hoping that the department will at least train someone or allow someone to become a specialist in these sorts of rural affairs so even if they don’t get out here frequently they can deal intelligently with spills that happen in these small communities,” said Carlson.
Closing the office, Carlson said, will result in a lower level of service for people in the region and a tilting in favor of industry.
“The Department and particularly my program has a diminished view of the importance of Rural Alaska and Western Alaska in terms of needing to serve the communities out here on fairly small spills. They will undoubtedly handle that by phone from Anchorage or the other cities,” said Carlson.
And Carlson says that’s not enough.
“People, when they do have a spill, they don’t know how to clean it up, mostly they don’t, and they need advice. And often they need hands on assistance, you know, on-site assistance and that’s just not going to happen with offices located in Anchorage,” said Carlson.
Carlson had worked at the Bethel DEC office since 1995, shortly after it opened. Recently he’s played a key role in trying to clean up derelict and abandoned barges in the area and in pushing state officials to hold businesses responsible for the barges, accountable.
A White Mountain man stands accused of murder after investigators allege he came home on New Year’s Day after a night of drinking and got into an argument with his girlfriend before strangling her.
Gilbert Olanna, Jr., 31, was formally charged in Nome court Saturday afternoon on one charge of first-degree murder in the death of White Mountain resident Esther Lincoln. He also faces two felony charges for tampering with evidence and one misdemeanor charge for fourth-degree assault.
Court documents and investigation from Alaska State Troopers allege that around 9:30 on the morning of New Year’s Day, Olanna arrived outside a neighbor’s house, looking for help from a health aide for his girlfriend, 41-year-old Lincoln.
Court documents state “a health aide responded to the home Lincoln shared with Olanna, and found her on the mattress dead.” The health aide, court records note, “observed bruising on Lincoln’s neck.”
Olanna told investigators he had spent the early morning hours of New Year’s Day “out drinking” and, after returning home, got into an argument with Lincoln. Olanna told investigators that during the fight “his arm slipped below Lincoln’s chin and around her neck.”
He told investigators he held Lincoln “around the neck for several minutes until she went limp.”
When “confronted with evidence” that Lincoln also suffered several head injuries, investigators said Olanna admitted to also striking her on the face, leading to the assault charge.
Olanna told Troopers he cleaned and dressed Lincoln’s body before leaving the house to find the health aide. Troopers wrote Olanna also admitted to deleting photos and videos of Lincoln from his cell phone after investigators had asked to see the phone.
In court Saturday Olanna wept openly as he sat before Nome Magistrate Bob Lewis, who told Olanna that, if convicted on the charge of first-degree murder, he could face a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. Olanna asked for the court to provide a public defender. Magistrate Lewis entered a “not guilty” plea on his behalf.
District Attorney John Earthman said Olanna’s record includes “in the past 15 years 15 assault convictions,” including an April 2009 conviction of felony assault in Anchorage. Earthman said that list of prior assaults led him to request $100,000 cash bail, to which Magistrate Lewis agreed.
When asked by the court if he had any dependents, Olanna said he support “two people” in his White Mountain home. KTUU reports Olanna is the father of a two-year-old son with Lincoln; the boy is being taken care of by his grandparents. Lincoln’s other son lives with his father in Nome.
The court moved on to other matters as Olanna hung his head and continued to weep. Walking to the exit after the proceedings, Olanna spotted his mother looking on.
“I love you,” he said to her softly. “I’m sorry.”
The appointment of Michelle Putz wasn’t all the assembly drama Friday night.
A scheduled discussion on hospital issues with CEO Jeff Comer was sidetracked when Comer didn’t appear. Instead, he sent hospital board president Celeste Tydingco to read a statement.
I regret that I cannot be here in person tonight. But, as many of you may have heard, I was physically assaulted, and further attacked as I was injured on the ground. As a result, I am still quite shaken up and do not feel safe coming to this meeting in person.
Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt confirms that Comer called dispatch Friday afternoon to report an assault, and an officer was sent to take his statement. Comer alleges that he was approached by a man and a woman on a hiking trail near Sitka around 1 PM, and knocked down and kicked after being recognized as the hospital CEO.
Chief Schmitt says police are attempting to follow-up with Comer, to get a better description of his alleged assailants.
Comer required neither treatment or hospitalization for his injuries. And he was apparently well enough to travel.
Again, this is Celeste Tydingco reading from Comer’s statement.
Given the physical assault I endured today, I can no longer remain in Sitka, and will be leaving this weekend. Even with this, I am still willing to be available to help the city and hospital as needed, but it will now have to be from Arizona.
Comer took over as CEO of Sitka Community Hospital just three months ago. In remarks to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce in November, he outlined broad plans to regionalize services at the hospital, especially through the use of telemedicine. In early December, however, Comer disclosed that the hospital was in financial jeopardy, and required a $1-million loan to stay afloat. The assembly approved that loan on December 23. Comer subsequently tendered his resignation.
The board of the city-owned hospital will meet at noon Monday, January 5th in the first-floor classroom of the hospital to consider Comer’s resignation. Both Mayor Mim McConnell and municipal administrator Mark Gorman plan on attending. Gorman, who has long experience as a healthcare administrator at SEARHC, told the assembly that time was of the essence.
“The critical thing is identifying a transition team during this period. An actual team that’s moving quite quickly to ensure that there is confidence and stability at the hospital in all patient care functions. And what is the plan.”
Gorman suggested that the transition team answer to the assembly during the crisis, but that ultimately, “the hospital board is responsible for recruiting and hiring a new CEO.”
More weekend overnight violence involving firearms in Anchorage.
Two people are reported injured at a party in Muldoon early Saturday morning. One person showed up at the emergency room with a gunshot wound to the leg. Another person had head injuries from an apparent pistol whipping.
The crowd was dispersing as police arrived and they are asking for tips from the public.