APRN Alaska News

Subscribe to APRN Alaska News feed APRN Alaska News
Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 54 min 22 sec ago

Pick. Click. Give. Donations Up, Number Of Donors Taper

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:55

Annual giving in the Pick. Click. Give. program has grown robustly since its 2009 launch, though the total number of donors appears to be tapering off.

Download Audio

This year, program officials have brought back the Double Your Dividend sweepstakes to attract donors, and organizations will be charged a new 7 percent administrative fee.

There’s been double-digit percentage growth in the amount given to Alaska nonprofits through Pick. Click. Give. since its launch.

The program makes it easy for Alaskans to give part of their Permanent Fund Dividends to charities. Almost 27,000 people donated about $2.8 million in 2014.

However, the growth in the number of people giving is down.

“So we sometimes wonder if people are thinking back to the dividend that they just received a couple of months earlier,” says Pick. Click. Give. program manager Heather Beaty of the Alaska Community Foundation.

The payout in 2013 was about half of last year’s, the third biggest in the history of dividends.

“We have speculated that having a lower PFD amount may have affected the rate of participation,” Beaty says.

Tim Blust is a bookkeeper with Discovery Southeast, a Juneau nonprofit with an outdoor education mission. Last year, he goosed his organization’s books a little with a personal donation through Pick. Click. Give.

In the fall, he got a coy phone message from Beaty.

“My 12-year-old son immediately said, ‘Dad, you must have won.’ And I said, “Won what?”

His son was right. Blust was one of 10 winners of the Double Your Dividend drawing that Pick. Click. Give. donors entered.

The sweepstakes launched last March, the final month of the dividend sign-up period. It was meant to counter low giving caused by technical problems in what’s usually a busy January.

It’s hard to suss out exactly what effect the sweepstakes had.

But, Beaty says, “We did see Pick. Click. Give. participation go up quite a bit while we were promoting the sweepstakes. So we decided to go ahead and implement it again this year hoping that it continues to encourage more Alaskans to make donations through Pick. Click. Give.”

One change this year affecting participating organizations is a new 7 percent administrative fee. The fee is meant to replace temporary grant funding, largely from the Rasmuson Foundation, used to get the program going. Organizations will continue to pay a separate $250 filing fee.

Last year, the legislature unanimously created the new fee while also relaxing some requirements.

The sentiment among several local nonprofit officials was that it’s too bad to lose the revenue, but worth the convenience.

Rasmuson President and CEO Diane Kaplan said in a recent blog post that the new fee is a sign of the program’s sustainability and maturity.

Dividends are expected to grow again in 2015. The value of the dividend is based on a rolling, 5-year average of Permanent Fund investment gains and losses.

Full disclosure: KTOO participates in Pick. Click. Give.

Categories: Alaska News

Draft Juneau Economic Plan Released

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:54

Downtown Juneau. (Creative Commons photo by Lena LeRay)

Does this list sound familiar?

  • Enhance Essential Infrastructure
  • Build the Senior Economy
  • Attract and Prepare the Next Generation Workforce
  • Recognize and Expand Juneau’s Position as a Research Center
  • Build on Our Strengths
  • Protect and Enhance Juneau’s Role as Capital City
  • Revitalize Downtown
  • Promote Housing Affordability and Availability

Those are the eight broad initiatives discussed in the draft Juneau Economic Plan, developed by the McDowell Group and Sheinberg Associates for the Juneau Assembly. The plan is intended to guide the capital city’s financial future for the next decade. Most of the initiatives and specific goals discussed in the plan have been city priorities for years.

Download Audio

“We are in pretty good shape as community economically,” says Jim Calvin with the McDowell Group.

“(We have) relatively high per capita and household incomes, and strong visitor industry, strong mining industry. We have a lot of great assets to build on,” Calvin says. “So I think we’re coming at this from a position of strength as a community, which is certainly better than venturing into economic development when you’re in recession or otherwise struggling.”

Each initiative discussed in the plan includes specific goals or objectives for city officials to work on. Some of those are long-discussed city priorities as well: A second bridge to Douglas Island, expanding the availability of childcare and increasing the number of starter homes to name a few.

Calvin says these issues have long been barriers to economic growth in Juneau.

“Housing is a case in point,” he says. “It’s really a fundamental, underlying foundation for Juneau’s economy, and we at the moment have a housing market that’s acting as a constraint on economic development.”

The draft economic plan was released Wednesday on the web. Calvin will present details to the Juneau Assembly on Monday.

The specifics shouldn’t come as a shock to the Assembly members, who’ve been receiving periodic updates on the project for almost a year. Mayor Merrill Sanford says the next step is to adopt the plan and implement its recommendations.

“There’s a lot of good goals and a lot of good objectives,” Sanford says. “We’re going to have to prioritize them and figure out which ones we need to do first.”

Sanford thinks the $100,000 the city spent on the plan was worth it.

“It just puts everything into perspective and says, ‘Assembly members, here are the things, some of the things that you’ve been working on diligently, trying to get accomplished.’ It backs those up and supports them. And then it’s given us a couple of other avenues to go down to get to an end result,” Sanford says.

The mayor says the Assembly hopes to adopt the plan by the end of February.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Centenarians In National Photo Project

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:52

Photographer Danny Goldfield shows centenarian Henry Neligan some apps on his smartphone while talking at the Ketchikan Indian Community cafeteria.

A New York photographer wants to create portraits of a 100-year-old man and a 100-year-old woman from each of the 50 states. He’s calling the project “To Live 10,000 years,” and he recently checked a couple hundred of those years off his list during a trip to Ketchikan.

Download Audio

Danny Goldfield thought that Alaska would be the most difficult state to find centenarians, especially a man. But, it turned out to be pretty easy. Goldfield knew someone from Alaska, and one connection is all you really need in a state where everyone is closely connected.

So, he sent an email, his friend made a call, and there you have it.

“It was kind of amazing that the first day of the project, that I had a lead, at least, for what was going to be the hardest subject to find: A man in Alaska who is over 100,” he said.

Henry Neligan. Photo by Danny Goldfield

That 100-year-old man is Henry Neligan, an Alaska Native who also is a veteran of the World War II-era Alaska Territorial Guard.

Neligan eats lunch almost every day at the Ketchikan Indian Community cafeteria. Goldfield joined him there for soup, salad and sandwiches, as well as conversation and, of course, photographs.

Conversation is part of the process. Goldfield said he’s naturally curious about people, and enjoys talking with each of his subjects.

“I don’t really have much of an agenda or questions that I need answered,” he said. “I’m just happy to be with them and wait and hear what they have to offer, what they have to stay and let their stream of consciousness inform the conversation. It’s the same way with the photography. I don’t have any expectations of what kind of images I’m going to get. I just wait and let things happen and try to make it as natural as possible. In a perfect situation, I’m almost invisible.”

Goldfield said he started this project in part because his own parents are getting older. That made him think about aging in the United States, so he decided to focus his lens on the growing community of older Americans.

It’s early days still for Goldfield’s project, which he expects will take about two years to complete. Before coming to Ketchikan, he photographed centenarians in Maryland, Connecticut and New Hampshire, and after Alaska, Goldfield planned some more West Coast stops.

This has been a learning experience for Goldfield. He said that before starting this project, he had a pretty bleak view of what it was like to be an older American. Now, though, he has a different picture of that world.

“There’s a lot of people out there looking out for the elders in our communities and it’s really been actually more encouraging than discouraging, which is nice, right?” he said.

Goldfield acknowledged that his project probably leads him to seniors who are well cared for.

Margaret McCombs. Photo by Danny Goldfield.

Another lesson learned is that the senior community is a woman’s world.

“You know, 80 percent of centenarians are women, most older adults are women,” he said. “It’ll be a daughter, inevitably, that’s caring for an elder in a family. A lot of people working in different organizations are women. So, sometimes you hear that ‘the politics of gender. It’s a man’s world.’ Well, I have found a world that is definitely a woman’s world and it’s the world of older adults.”

Speaking of women, Goldfield was able to find an Alaska woman in Ketchikan to photograph, as well: 107-year-old Margaret McCombs, who lives at the Ketchikan Pioneers Home.

Goldfield’s photographs of 100-year-old men and women can be seen online at tolive10000years.com. Goldfield also shares his images through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Categories: Alaska News

MEA Eklutna Plant In Testing Phase

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:35

 Yellow smoke emitted Monday by the new Matanuska Electric Association power plant in Eklutna is worrying some nearby residents.

According to MEA spokeswoman Julie Estey, the smoke is temporary and non- harmful. Estey says the smoke is a byproduct of installation and tests of the emission control system at the new power plant, which is expected to be completely on -line by the end of March.

“Our commissioning process at our new power plant had some yellow – tinged exhaust being emitted yesterday, and that was simply us fine -tuning our emissions control devices. They are called SCR devices, and the basically scrub the exhaust as it comes out of the stacks.”

The exhaust from the engines is part of the commissioning process. Tests are going on to fine- tune the devices that scrub nitrous oxide from the plant’s exhaust. The plant is designed to operate completely on natural gas, with diesel capability as backup.

“What that requires is a certain level of ammonia, aqueous ammonia, being injected into that system, and as the technicians were fine – tuning that amount aqueous ammonia to inject the chemical reaction was tingeing the exhaust yellow. And that was operating on diesel, now typically, our engines will run on natural gas, but we do want to test the full spectrum and range of their performance and so we were making sure that we could get that tuning done on diesel as well.”

Estey says the smoke was held in place by a temperature inversion, and that the smoke could return, off and on, during the commissioning phase, which will last for the next four to six weeks.

“All ten engines have now been run, and they are going through a battery of tests. Our goal is by January 15 to have four engines up and running completely and sending full output onto the grid.”


MEA plans to have all ten engines at the plant operating by the end of March.

The new,  $324 million, Eklutna Generation Station started operations this month to provide power for MEA’s roughly 66,000 customers in Eagle River and the Matanuska Valley.

MEA has an interim contract with Chugach Electric to purchase power for the plant until the end of March. MEA and Cook Inlet energy producer Hilcorp signed an agreement in 2013 to provide natural gas for the Eklutna plant through March of 2018. The gas will be delivered through an existing Enstar pipeline.

Categories: Alaska News

Illegal Dumping On State Land Draws Prosecution, Fines

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:27

Even in the grainy, black and white surveillance camera photo, the three young men are obviously in their twenties, and are ready to dump an old washer and dryer out of their small truck in the Goose Bay State Game Refuge parking lot.  The three were caught on camera breaking the law.   Joe Meehan, statewide coordinator for the refuge program, says the three then used the appliances for target practice, further polluting state property.

“And that’s just repeating this whole cycle of dumping garbage and lead contamination. We’re going to keep on top of it. We’re not going to tolerate it. The users of the Refuge don’t want it to continue and we are going to try to stop it as best we can by continuing to clean up and by catching and prosecuting people when we can catch them. “

Meehan says when the trio are located, possible fines of up to 10 thousand dollars and up to a year of jail time await them, under Fish and Game law.

“Yeah, it’s been a long time problem. It’s been going on out there at Goose Bay for decades. It kind of became the culture of use for people to drag their old refrigerators, tvs, computers, couches, furniture, stolen vehicles, junk vehicles, bring them out there and target practice with them and then just leave all their garbage behind.”

Since 2010, the state has spent one hundred thousand dollars cleaning up Goose Bay. With the help of the Alaska National Guard, about 107 Tons of debris has been removed including about 75 vehicles, 40 car batteries and other hazardous materials. Recent cleanup efforts have aimed to mitigate lead deposits that remain in the refuge from years of target shooting.

“We ran into the same problem in the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge. That people just get accustomed to doing it. It’s where they go to dispose of their garbage, it’s where they go to target shoot. And if we can clean it up, fix it up and attract people to go in there and use this for legitimate activities, like hunting and fishing and bird watching and photography, eventually, you’ll displace that illegal activity.  I’d like to think that we are changing people’s types of use and that they are not doing that illegal behavior, but unfortunately a lot of times I think we are just displacing it and sending it elsewhere.”

This week, a twenty year old Wasilla man, Ian Beall, was fined one thousand dollars for dumping two truck loads of roofing material at Goose Bay State Game Refuge. He must also serve 20 hours of community service.  Beall was easily traced through evidence gathered by refuge officials, and he pleaded guilty in December. 






Categories: Alaska News

Alaska’s New U.S. Senator Takes the Oath

Tue, 2015-01-06 16:17

Sen. Dan Sullivan, with his wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, thanks Vice President Joe Biden after a ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol.

“I was talking to Julie, I said, ‘All right, send this to all our Alaska supporters.’ (It’s a) long way to go, pretty expensive airline ticket, (I thought) maybe 20 or 30 Alaskans would come. And I think at last count we had well over 200 Alaskans!” Sullivan said, to hoots and applause.

Alaskan guests included Gov. Bill Walker, and state legislators Click Bishop, Lynn Gattis and Bill Stoltze. Alaska Political consultants Art and April Hackney mingled with D.C. strategists like Carl Forti and Mike Dubke. Former Attorney General Gregg Renkes attended, as did developer Bob Penney and Washington lobbyists with long ties to the Alaska delegation, including Duncan Smith and David Russell. Sullivan’s parents came, along with his brother Frank Sullivan, CEO of RPM International, the paint company founded by the family. Sullivan said he had too many relatives in the room to name them all.

“I’ve got a million cousins and nieces and nephews, and brothers and sisters, and sisters-in-laws and brothers-in-laws,” he said, adding that the Alaskans would surely bump into a Sullivan relative or two in the Capitol corridors, or in the dinners and receptions to come.

After the official swearing in, the new senator went back to the Capitol for another swearing-in, also with Vice President Biden, but this one for the cameras in the ornate Old Senate Chamber. It was one senator at a time, with each family gathered ‘round. The procession ran long as Biden kissed every baby, congratulated the elderly, and signed family Bibles. When the freshman Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner, came up, Biden called Gardner’s grandma on a cell phone. (She said she couldn’t talk because she was watching TV to see her grandson get sworn in as a U.S. Senator.) Sullivan, when it was his turn, approached with his teenage daughters.

“This is Megan, this is Isabella, this Laurel,” Sullivan said, by way of introduction. “This is the Vice President of the United States.

Alaskans mingled with Sullivan relatives at a reception in the Russell Senate Office Building.

“Oh My God,” Biden said, conveying his admiration as the girls pulled off a perfectly formal how-do-you-do.

Biden joked to Sullivan that, with such beauties at home, he better have a good fence.

“Oh, I got concertina wire,” said the senator.

Earlier, in the real Senate chamber, as senators filtered in. Sullivan found his desk and shook hands with new Republican colleagues. He spoke briefly to Sen. John McCain, and had a longer chat with Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Sullivan will serve on. Sen. Ted Cruz, who campaigned for Sullivan in Alaska, came by to say hello. Outside, in the corridor, Sullivan wasn’t letting it go to his head.

“It’s very humbling,” he said. “There’s an element there where you’ve seen some of these important figures for a good part of a your life and you’re very honored to be able to serve with them.”

As a freshman with the lowest seniority, Sullivan’s desk in the Senate is not in the chamber’s power spot. It’s on an outer edge, third row in, next to Iowa’s new senator, Joni Ernst. Still, it’s the United States Senate, so it’s one of the most powerful seats in the country, and therefore the world.

Categories: Alaska News

Aleut Enterprises To Pay Over $1 Million In Adak Fuel Spill Settlement

Tue, 2015-01-06 12:09

Aleut Enterprise will pay more than $1 million to settle criminal charges and cover damages from a fuel spill on Adak.

The spill took place back in January 2010. A tanker was unloading fuel at a facility operated by Adak Petroleum – a subsidiary of Aleut Enterprise, which is owned by the Aleut Corporation.

The receiving tank and a secondary containment system overflowed, spilling 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel into nearby Helmet Creek. From there, it flowed into Sweeper Cove – and into Adak’s small boat harbor.

The spill took almost a year to clean up. Just about 5,000 gallons of fuel were recovered. After an investigation by state and federal authorities, Alaska’s Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals filed a criminal case in 2013.

Prosecutor Carole Holley says that Aleut Enterprise has been fully cooperative. That’s why the state agreed to drop criminal charges and pursue a $500,000 civil penalty instead – the maximum allowable under state law.

“Our goal is to make sure that the environment is protected, that we conserve our resources, and that companies really take their obligations and their responsibilities to the state seriously,” Holley said. “And Aleut [Enterprise] did so, in this case.”

In addition to their civil penalty, Aleut Enterprise will pay another $200,000 to improve their environmental compliance programs around the state. Besides Adak, the company also has a fuel facility in Cold Bay.

Aleut Enterprise has already agreed to pay more than a quarter of a million dollars to cover environmental assessments and monitoring at the spill site.

Holley says state prosecutors have also reached a settlement with the former fuel facility manager in Adak. Michael Baker was present the day of the spill.

He’s pleaded guilty to violating his company’s oil discharge plans and failing to test overflow detection equipment. Baker will pay a $2,000 fine and serve 40 hours of community service.

Holley says that Baker will do that work at an environmental organization near his new home in Florida.

Neither Baker nor Aleut Enterprise could be reached for comment.

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka Hospital Cuts Ties With Former CEO, Moves Toward Transition

Tue, 2015-01-06 09:54

The hospital classroom fills for the board’s noon meeting. Staffers urged transparency as the board moves forward. “A lot of what’s happened has been a mystery to us,” said one. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka Community Hospital has an interim CEO. The hospital board named Chief Nursing Officer Raine Clarke to the post at a special meeting on Monday (1-5-15). The term of Clarke’s service is not known at the moment. What is known, however, is that former CEO Jeff Comer will not be receiving anything more than his paycheck for his work through last Friday, as Sitka’s embattled hospital struggles to balance its books and find direction.

Raine Clarke is at the top of the duty roster to serve as CEO when the regular hospital CEO is absent — regardless of whether it’s a planned absence. This is by-the-book hospital policy.

Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak nevertheless urged the hospital board to give Clarke the nod formally, even if it was on a very short-term basis. The hospital board also liked the idea of rotating other members of the hospital administration into the CEO role, as has been standard practice.

Jeff Comer speaking to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce in November 2013, prior to disclosures about the hospital’s financial straits. (KCAW Photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Koutchak said that right now a team really couldn’t serve as CEO .

“My caution is: You really need somebody in charge of the ship.”

So the board settled on Clarke, and there was some comfort in following established procedures to arrive at that decision.

This is board chair Celeste Tydingco.

“We’ve already got policies in place. This isn’t a huge emergency right now. We do have things that we’ve already established that are working. But let’s meet real soon. Let’s get a plan together very, very quickly and make a good plan, and not just a knee-jerk plan.”

To help, the city of Sitka is providing the support of municipal administrator Mark Gorman, chief administrative officer Jay Sweeney, and municipal attorney Robin Koutchak. Member Lori Hart thought that between the hospital board, hospital staff, and municipal staff, some kind of transition plan could be developed in about three weeks.

The transition will not involve Jeff Comer, who became CEO of Sitka Community Hospital in October, and handed in his resignation around New Year’s. Comer vacated his hospital-owned apartment on Sunday, January 4, turned in his keys, rental car, and laptop, and departed Sitka for Phoenix, Arizona, according to Koutchak.

Sitka’s attorney wanted to clear up any misconception about whether Comer would entitled to a severance package worth two months of his $185,000 salary.

She read from an email Comer sent to board members the day before the meeting.

“He says: Per Section 7a of my Employment Agreement the Board must pay me for 60 days. That’s not what that section says in his contract. So if you all could look at his contract, and go to that section. 7a states that he is to give 60 days notice. It doesn’t say we’re to pay him. It says he’s to give us 60 days notice.”

In his email, Comer agrees to remain available to work telephonically from Arizona to support the hospital during the transition. Koutchak felt that didn’t fulfill his employment contract. Furthermore, there’s the alleged assault.

Comer failed to appear for a scheduled meeting with the assembly on January 2, saying — through a statement — that he had been attacked and beaten on a local trail that afternoon, and feared for his safety.

Koutchak felt it was best to move on.

“He gave us his resignation letter dated December 30, and then on Friday he really, really let everyone know by way of the assembly meeting that he was gone, and Sunday he was on a plane. So I think we’re really safe in saying Friday was his last day. Pay him up through Friday, let it go.”

But members Hans von Rekowski and Ann Wilkinson were unsure. Von Rekowski expressed concern about contracts and other work that Comer had in progress, and which might be difficult for someone else to pick up. Wilkinson wondered if the board should postpone accepting Comer’s resignation until they were satisfied that he had left things in order.

Koutchak thought that was unrealistic.

“Ann, I think he’s gone. Elvis has left the building!” (Laughter…)

During public testimony, the hospital board felt some heat — both real and figurative — from the 60 staff and members of the public packed into the hospital’s classroom space. There was sentiment that the board was too dependent on the services of the headhunting firm B.E. Smith in hiring Comer, when a simple Google search would have shown that Comer had jumped often between jobs.

Physician Richard Wien was clearly disappointed in Comer. He urged the board toward accountability and action.

“Real, material damage has been caused to this hospital. How is that so? Well just a couple of examples: I hear nurses are applying to SEARHC. Do you know how hard nurses are to get? I heard that the two mid-levels (physicians) who were coming here were not going to come here or sign contracts because they heard of the financial issues related to this hospital. And it goes on and on and on. When a professional has a job to do, they roll their sleeves up and do it!”

Wien recommended putting a physician on the board. That idea was seconded by member of the public Owen Kindig, who wanted the board to look beyond traditional models of hospital governance. “This is a watershed moment for Sitka,” he said.

There was also a sense of community in the room, and a willingness to work toward a solution. Members of the hospital finance department said that an audit would show that the numbers may not be as bad as Comer had indicated. The mood compelled assembly member Ben Miyasato to step forward and remind hospital staffers that they will come out the other side. “You will weather this,” he said.

Note: Sitka police are soliciting the public’s help regarding the alleged assault of Jeff Comer, which reportedly occurred last Friday at about 1 PM near the bridge on the lower part of Herring Cove Trail. Anyone with helpful information about Comer’s assailants — reportedly a man and a woman — are asked to call police at 747-3245.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers Investigate Aniak Infant Death

Tue, 2015-01-06 09:48

An infant was found dead Sunday morning in the village of Aniak, reportedly after sleeping on the couch with her mother.

An Alaska State trooper report said officers, volunteer fire and EMS crews responded to a home after a report that the infant wasn’t breathing. They tried resuscitate the girl but were unsuccessful. The 5-month-old was transported to a clinic where she was pronounced dead about an hour later.

Troopers said it appears the mother fell asleep with the child on the couch around 2:30 am. A relative stopped by the house after 7 and woke the mother, who discovered her child was not breathing.

Last month in Emmonak a one-year-old girl died in similar circumstances. A trooper report said that baby stopped breathing after sleeping on the couch with her father, who had been drinking that night.

Experts say bed sharing, especially on sofas or couches, raises the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, often by the larger person accidentally suffocating the child during the night.

Categories: Alaska News

Ousted Military Affairs Official Returns As Senate Media Strategist

Mon, 2015-01-05 23:17

A recently ousted military affairs official has been hired by the Alaska Senate Majority to guide their media strategy.

McHugh Pierre was asked in September to step down as deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, as part of then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s efforts to reform the Alaska National Guard. His resignation came shortly after the release of a federal report that concluded the Guard suffered from leadership failures and a toxic command climate. The next month, Pierre established a public relations firm, Quantum Communications. Pierre has now been granted a contract to aid the Senate’s Republican majority caucus in their communications with the press.

“We’ll be coordinating the message plan,” said Pierre in a phone interview. “The voters sent the right people to Juneau, and I want to make sure they’re effective in communicating to the voters what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it.”

Prior to his appointment as deputy commissioner, Pierre served as a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican Party. He also has communications experience with the military affairs agency and with former Gov. Frank Murkowski. Pierre says he was approached by Senate President Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, about an opportunity to work for the caucus. Pierre’s contract will last through May 15, and he will not be categorized as a state employee. Pierre also says even before the resignation, he had considered leaving the administration and launching his own communications firm.

“I was asked to resign because the governor was ready to have someone new in that position. You serve at the governor’s pleasure, and it was clear that he didn’t want the senior leadership to stay,” said Pierre. “I never did anything wrong. I don’t believe the organization did any wrong. I think the organization did everything it could to support its members.”

At the time of Pierre’s resignation, Parnell did not give an explanation for the firing, citing personnel rules.

Going into the legislative session, a number of lawmakers have already stated reform of the Alaska National Guard is a priority. The federal report by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations found that Alaska guardsmen were reluctant to report cases of sexual assault because of a lack of trust in the system, and that the Alaska force has problems with favoritism and fraud. Senate Judiciary Chair Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, plans to hold National Guard hearings, and Gov. Bill Walker is currently screening candidates for a special investigator position.

Pierre says he will not handle communications strategy related to the Alaska National Guard.

In an e-mail to majority caucus members, Senate President Kevin Meyer wrote that he consulted with a number of colleagues before Pierre’s hire.

“He brings a vast amount of experience working in communications and journalism and I believe will be a valuable asset to the experience and talent we currently have in our press office,” wrote Meyer.

Pierre will begin work for the Senate Majority on January 15.

Categories: Alaska News

Post-Holiday Lull Means Less Public Attention For Homeless Needs

Mon, 2015-01-05 16:54

Quiet after the frenzy of the holidays is a welcome change for many Alaskans, but for those who live from paycheck to paycheck or are homeless, the quiet can mean less. Less public attention to donations of clothing, food and money during the coldest part of the year. In December, Lisa Aquino took the helm as executive director for Catholic Social Services, the organization that runs Brother Francis Shelter, Claire House and other assistance programs in Anchorage.

Aquino grew up in Anchorage in a family that spent lots of time helping out and donating to Brother Francis. Aquino says the needs of people at the shelter really haven’t changed since then – a warm coat, food and a safe place to sleep.

Download Audio

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 5, 2015

Mon, 2015-01-05 16:52

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

Download Audio

Special Investigator Planned To Look Into National Guard Allegation

The Associated Press

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.

Sullivan Takes Oath Tomorrow, Rep. Young Misses First Week Due to Death of Brother

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

A new Congress begins Tuesday and that means 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.

Legacy of Bar Break Violence Haunting Downtown Business Development

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Alcohol and late night clubs are often blamed for the frequency of bar break violence in downtown Anchorage. The last few months have seen shootings, fights, and even a massive street dance party that was cleared by police officers in riot gear. The Anchorage Assembly is casting an unusual amount of scrutiny on a pending liquor license transfer.

Blindingly Bright ‘Moose Lights’ Worry Troopers – But They’re Legal, Unregulated

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

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 they can also blind oncoming motorists.

State Closes Bethel DEC Office

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

There is no longer an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation office in Bethel. State officials say they closed the office just before the holidays. But the former sole employee of the office says the closure will lower the level of service to Southwest Alaska and could slow spill response time.

Post-Holiday Lull Means Less Public Attention For Homeless Needs

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Quiet after the frenzy of the holidays is a welcome change for many Alaskans, but for those who live from paycheck to paycheck or are homeless, the quiet can mean less. Less public attention to donations of clothing, food and money during the coldest part of the year. In December, Lisa Aquino took the helm as executive director for Catholic Social Services, the organization that runs Brother Francis Shelter, Claire House and other assistance programs in Anchorage.

Local Filmmaker to Document Cook Inlet Trek

Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer

Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick are well known in Alaska for taking daring expeditions with their two young children, Katmai and Lituya.  Now, a Homer filmmaker is producing a documentary about one of their most adventurous trips- around Cook Inlet.

Categories: Alaska News

Local Filmmaker to Document Cook Inlet Trek

Mon, 2015-01-05 16:44

This is a story about stories.

“I think that people like stories,” says adventurer Erin McKittrick. “If you’re trying to figure things out and trying to understand the world, stories are how people think.”

McKittrick is a born storyteller and her stories are pretty exciting.

Lituya, Erin, Katmai, and Hig. (Photo Courtesy of groundtruthtrekking.org)

“Well, to tell the story of the movie, I first have to tell my part of it, which was basically walking around Cook Inlet,” says McKittrick. “So, spring and summer of 2013, my husband and I and our two kids, who were four and two years old at the time, set out from basically the mouth of Cook Inlet, a little beyond Nanwalek Village, to walk and paddle pack rafts around and we did that.”

That three and a half month, 800 mile journey is the focal point of the film which is being made by Bjorn Olson.

“Hig and Erin shot footage and a lot of stills and Erin’s a fastidious journal keeper,” says Olson. “So, I have been entrusted with that material to turn that into a project.”

The project is headed by Ground Truth Trekking, Hig and Erin’s non-profit that Olson is a part of. It’s being funded through Kickstarter.

“I would like to go back and basically retrace their route and interact with the people they interacted with,” says Olson.

Those interactions center on a single question that Hig explains in the Kickstarter preview video.

“You know we had all our gear we were carrying; we also carried a question,” says Higman. “We asked pretty much anyone we met what they thought were the big changes in store for Alaska in the next 50 years or so, the next couple generations. [We were] trying to get out beyond that immediate political cycle, controversies of the moment.”

Erin says they got incredibly diverse answers. Some people told stories about their children, and education. Some talked about preserving traditional ways and the environment. She says it was a reflection of Cook Inlet in its entirety.

“It has so much diversity,” says McKittrick. “You know, almost every kind of community or place you might find in Alaska from the extremely wild, the parks that people rarely go to, to Anchorage, and everywhere in between – fish camps and little villages.”

That sentiment about this place in Alaska, this central nervous system of fishing, mining, oil and gas, metropolitan and rural lifestyles, gave the film and the journey its title.

“We called the trip the Heart of Alaska and the place really kind of encompasses everything you find in the state,” says McKittrick.

Those people and their ideas will be central to the film. Olson hopes it will portray Alaska’s communities in a thoughtful and even-handed way.

“I personally feel that we get bombarded with one side versus another on a lot of these issues,” says Olson. “Either you’re for this or you’re against this. Quite often, the situations and the issues are much more complex than just black and white.”

Erin says Heart of Alaska is about the nuance, the in-between, the journey.

“I don’t think the story is just about us but we’re the glue; we tie it together with footsteps,” says McKittrick. “It is the story of this family going out to learn things, but it’s also a story of the things we learned.”

And she hopes those stories will motivate other Alaskans to look to the future and question what it holds.

Categories: Alaska News

Sullivan Takes Oath Tomorrow, Rep. Young Misses First Week Due to Death of Brother

Mon, 2015-01-05 15:55

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Special Investigator Planned To Look Into National Guard Allegation

Mon, 2015-01-05 15:52

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Blindingly Bright ‘Moose Lights’ Worry Troopers – But They’re Legal, Unregulated

Mon, 2015-01-05 15:39

Sgt. Jess Carson, with Alaska State Troopers’ Bureau of Highway Patrol Fairbanks office, says extremely bright after-market headlights may help the motorist behind the wheel, but they also may create a hazard for motorists in oncoming vehicles by diminishing their night vision. (Credit flickr.com)

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.

Categories: Alaska News

State Closes Bethel DEC Office

Mon, 2015-01-05 10:14

The ‘Shanks Arc’ has been stuck in the middle of Steamboat Slough for more than a year. – (Photo by Daysa Eaton)

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.

Categories: Alaska News

White Mountain Man Charged with New Year’s Day Murder of Girlfriend

Mon, 2015-01-05 10:09

Gilbert Olanna, Jr. was arraigned in the Nome court Saturday, facing a first-degree murder charge in the death of Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM)

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.

Esther Lincoln. (Photo: Luann Harrelson via KTUU)

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.”

Categories: Alaska News

Hospital CEO Alleges Assault, Leaves Sitka

Mon, 2015-01-05 10:03

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.

Listen to Jeff Comer’s complete statement to the assembly here. Read it here.

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.

Jeff Comer speaking to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce in November 2013, prior to disclosures about the hospital’s financial straits. (KCAW Photo/Rachel Waldholz)

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.”

Categories: Alaska News

Weekend Gun Violence Lands 2 In Anchorage Hospitals

Mon, 2015-01-05 09:55

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.

Categories: Alaska News