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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: 50 min 34 sec ago

Wife Of Missing Mt. Marathon Racer Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Thu, 2014-04-03 17:41

The wife of a man who went missing during the 2012 Mt. Marathon race is suing the Seward Chamber of Commerce. The wrongful death suit is asking for a judgment of $5 million.

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Categories: Alaska News

Aleutians East Scrambles For Cheaper Link To Akutan Airport

Thu, 2014-04-03 17:40

The new helicopter takes off from Akutan, bound for the airport on Akun Island. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Yesterday, we reported that Akutan residents are pleased with their new airport taxi — a helicopter that came online in February. The Aleutians East Borough is already running out of money to pay for it. Today, in the second part of our series on the struggle to connect Akutan to its airport, the borough settles on a permanent solution. It’s one they rejected a decade ago.

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Akutan’s airport is unique in a lot of ways. For one, it’s not on Akutan – it’s seven miles away, on Akun Island.

That means airport operations are a little more complicated than normal. So, they’re divided up among three groups: the city of Akutan, the Aleutians East Borough and the state of Alaska.

One major task is getting people from Akutan to the airport. Sean Holland, of the state department of transportation, says that job falls to just one entity:

“The Aleutians East Borough agreed to provide and fund the operation of the marine link between the city of Akutan and the island of Akun,” he says.

The borough started exploring their options almost a decade ago. A boat seemed like the obvious choice. But they could also try a hovercraft or a helicopter — whatever was cheapest and most reliable.

They hired a maritime engineering firm to figure that out. Glosten Associates said a hovercraft would be able to make the trip to the airport 90 percent of the time, at a cost of just over a million dollars a year. They said that made it cheaper and more efficient than a boat.

That was in 2005, years before borough administrator Rick Gifford was hired. But he knows the history. Based on Glosten’s work, Gifford says the borough was prepared to cover the million-dollar annual cost:

“It was kind of estimated that between charges for passengers and for freight, that they might be able to recoup up to half a million dollars of that,” he says.

And he says they agreed to pay another half a million out of pocket.

The borough was able to save money by recycling a hovercraft they’d already bought for King Cove. It stopped running there in 2010 after it proved too costly and unreliable.

In March 2010, the state broke ground on the airport. Construction was going well for about a year – until the Aleutians East Borough hit a snag.

At a meeting in 2011, the borough assembly re-calculated how much money the hovercraft would bring in. Their estimates were a lot lower than what Glosten Associates had told them years before — and the assembly wasn’t completely sure why.

KUCB reached out to Glosten about the alleged discrepancies, and the firm wouldn’t comment.

Whatever the reason, the assembly was no longer sure if the hovercraft could work long-term.

So they had a choice: Go back to the drawing board, pick a different vehicle, and possibly delay construction – or let it keep going. The state would finish building the airport around the hovercraft. And the borough could eventually use those same facilities for a helicopter, in hopes of saving some money.

And that’s exactly what they decided to do. Three years later, Rick Gifford, the borough administrator, says things have gone about as well as the assembly expected:

“As it’s turned out, the hovercraft cost three times more than a million dollars — it cost over $3 million,” he says. “They’re just not willing to do that. They can’t sustain it.”

In February, the borough made the switch to the helicopter. It’s going to cost $2 million a year — which is less than the hovercraft, but, Gifford says, still not cheap enough.

So after a decade, the borough is looking once again for a permanent way to connect to the airport. Their only option now is a ferry. Gifford says it’ll take at least five years and millions of dollars to set one up on Akun.

“A dock and a breakwater is not cheap. It’s a major capital item up front,” he says. “So it’s going to take some money to get it started. … but once those dollars are put in up front, then you’ll reduce the annual operating cost to the point where it’s feasible.”

Sean Holland, of the DOT, says the state has money left over for the Akutan project. It could help pay for the dock — but Holland isn’t sure if they could use it for the helicopter.

And that’s a problem for the borough: administrator Rick Gifford says they’re running out of money.

“So unless we get some financial help from the state and the users, primarily Trident Seafoods, I just don’t know … how long the borough will be willing to sustain that higher amount that it’s costing them,” he says.

Ideally, he says the borough would split the cost of the helicopter with Trident and the state. Trident’s processing plant in Akutan is the biggest in North America. They fly in thousands of workers every year — but they’ve already made contributions to the airport. As for the state: the legislature declined to pitch in last year.

Gifford says the borough has about six months before they can’t afford to run the helicopter anymore. It’s not clear what that would mean for the 90 residents of Akutan Village.

Mayor Joe Bereskin says they’ve been in limbo for a long time, and it’s starting to feel like the norm.

“It’s a revolving door that we have to go through until we get some sort of structure on Akun for some sort of conventional vessel out there,” he says. “It’s just what we’re faced with out here, and we’ll deal with it, best of our abilities.”

There’s not much else he can do. It’s up to the Aleutians East Borough to bridge the gap for good. The only question now is if they’ll have to do it on their own.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature’s Exit Time Could Shift Initiative Scheduling

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:31

Between a contested Senate primary and a mess of ballot questions, the August election is expected to be particularly lively. But a set of unusual circumstances and odd timing has the potential to knock all but one of the citizen measures to the November general election, if the Legislature gavels out late.

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Since the early weeks of the session, legislative leadership has been emphatic that they plan to gavel out early.

House Speaker Mike Chenault: “There’s a number of us that don’t think that Juneau is the place to be on Easter Sunday.”

And Senate President Charlie Huggins: “Let’s get out of here before Easter.”

An early close to the session lets lawmakers and staff enjoy egg hunts, family meals, and religious services. It also avoids a major ballot shuffle.

Here’s the deal: The Alaska Constitution stipulates that 120 days need to pass after a legislative session before a citizens’ initiative can go to a vote. The idea is to give lawmakers a chance to address ballot questions through the legislative process.

Ever since the Legislature switched to shorter sessions, all initiatives have ended up on the August ballot with plenty of time to spare before they would be kicked to the next race.

This year is a little different.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room there,” says Libby Bakalar, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law who specializes in election issues.

Bakalar says if you look at a calendar, there are exactly 120 days between the April 20 adjournment date and the August 19 primary.

“I guess without getting too close into the granular details of it, I would say that if it comes to pass that the Legislature does not adjourn on time, we’ll have to evaluate the state of the ballot at that point,” says Bakalar.

The timing is a bit of a “when-the-stars-align” sort of thing. On top of the interplay between the constitutional rules for initiatives and the shortened legislative session, Gov. Sean Parnell last year succeeded in getting the primary date moved up one week, to the third Tuesday in August.

That all adds up to a situation where if the Legislature goes even a minute beyond their scheduled closure, there’s a legal argument that initiatives on marijuana, the minimum wage, and the proposed Pebble mine should be put off until November. (If the Legislature gavels out on time but then convene in special session, the initiatives would not be bumped.)

But Bakalar says a referendum repealing a law that caps the tax rate on North Slope oil at 35 percent would not get moved. As if the rules governing elections were not complicated enough, the Constitution differentiates between initiatives, which create laws, and referenda, which strike them down. Referenda get voted on during the first election held more 180 days from the session when the law was passed.

“The referendum — the Senate Bill 21 referendum — will be on the primary ballot no matter what,” says Bakalar.

So, what does this all mean, aside from a potential headache for the Division of Elections? Well, if you’re looking at a tight race, it could mean a lot.

John Bitney managed Lisa Murkowski’s Senate campaign, and he knows firsthand how ballot questions can shape other races.

“Well, in the 2010 primary, in addition of course to the U.S. Senate race, there was an initiative on the ballot that required parental [notification] for teenage girls to go get an abortion procedure,” says Bitney.

Even though Murkowski supported the parental notification initiative, her opponent Joe Miller took a more conservative stance on abortion issues. Miller aligned himself with groups like Alaska Right to Life, which were already encouraging people to go out and vote for the initiative.

“It really drove them to the polls,” says Bitney. “If they were in favor of it, they felt very strongly in favor of it. And therefore, it was a very high likelihood that they would show up on election day and cast a ballot.”

In a major upset, Miller ended up beating an incumbent senator by just 2,000 votes. While Murkowski ultimately saved her seat through a write-in campaign, Bitney thinks that may have been avoided if the ballot composition had been different.

“In hindsight, I think we probably should have paid a little closer attention to that issue going in,” says Bitney.

This year, campaigners for and against the oil tax referendum are definitely paying attention to where the initiatives end up.

Renee Limoge handles communications for the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a trade association that opposes the referendum. She says she’ll be watching the scheduling of the initiatives because of how they might affect turnout.

“Definitely, says Limoge. “Initiatives do bring people to the polls, and we’ve got quite a varying number. We watch that.”

Referendum supporters also think the initiatives will drive voters — and that those voters will be sympathetic to their cause. Ray Metcalfe is one of the organizers behind “Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway,” and a former legislator. He says if the Legislature gavels out late, it could be a blow to the repeal campaign.

“Oh, we’ll cry foul,” says Metcalfe.

But Metcalfe says there’s a wrinkle. Right now, Republicans — who largely support the new oil tax law — are effectively in charge of adjournment because of their majority status. The Republican Party is also invested in beating Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in the Senate race, in keeping control of governor’s mansion, and maintaining dominance in the Legislature.

Metcalfe thinks having initiatives that are seen as attracting more liberal-minded voters would not help those goals in the general election.

“They probably are on a little bit of the horns of a dilemma, because you’re going to have more Democrats elected if those three initiatives are on the November ballot,” says Metcalfe.

For their part, leadership in the Legislature has said they do not want to wrestle with that dilemma. Some members have said they do not want to get involved in anything voters might perceive as electioneering. After all, there’s a lot of work to do between now and the end of session, and there’s not extra time for political gamesmanship if people want to get out early.

Categories: Alaska News

Tribal Judge: Bill to Improve Village Public Safety Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:21

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee today looked at a raft of bills aimed at improving the safety of Native American communities, including Alaska Native villages. A bill that would strengthen Alaska tribal courts and tribal law enforcement drew no opposition at the hearing, but the bill is likely to become more controversial.

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Natasha Singh, General Counsel for Tanana Chiefs Conference and also a tribal judge in Stevens Village, told an anecdote to illustrate the problem. Last summer, she was in a village when an intoxicated man tried to sexually assault a 13-year-old girl. Village leaders called the State Troopers but were told they couldn’t respond. Singh says this is at least the third such attempt by the same man.

“Now this man is currently still in the village. He regularly drinks, and the community, the women and children, have little protection from this individual,” Singh testified. “Do not allow this man to continue to terrorize his tribe.”

A bill sponsored by Alaska Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski aims to improve the delivery of justice in villages. It would repeal the exclusion of most of Alaska from a law called the Violence Against Women Act. The bill, the Alaska Safe Villages and Families Act, also encourages the state of Alaska to sign agreements with the tribes to enforce state law and deal with drug and alcohol offenses.

Singh says that doesn’t require federal law, because it’s essentially pre-trial diversion, or the state delegating it’s authority to the tribes. TCC and the state are working on agreements to do that already. She says the bill should go further and provide federal recognition of the tribe’s authority to deal, on its own, with local domestic violence and sexual assault as well as drug and alcohol offenses, even when the accused is not part of the tribe.

“What I’d like to tell you today is that if a woman in a village is the subject of domestic violence, the local tribal court must be assured that it may take lawful, immediate action against the abuser, regardless of tribal membership,” she said.

A TCC proposal, endorsed by other Native groups, calls for adding an Alaska “tribal law project” to the bill to recognize that kind of authority. Singh says the tribes would have civil jurisdiction only, unless the state agrees to more. And that’s highly unlikely, at least while Sean Parnell is governor. The head of the governor’s Washington D.C. office, Kip Knudson, declined to be interviewed for this story, but said Parnell’s response was reflected in a 2011 letter detailing the state’s response to a similar bill. In it, then-Attorney General John Burns suggested the bill was aimed at advancing tribal sovereignty rather than improving law enforcement. He also objected to what he said would be the dividing of Alaska into multiple jurisdictions.

At the hearing, Sen. Mark Begich told Singh he was open to adding the tribal law project to the bill.

“You need some assistance from the federal government so you can create some additional tools in the tool box for justice within your own communities,” he said.

In a letter to Parnell last week, Begich said the public safety problem in Alaska is so severe it warrants an “all of the above” approach. Such an approach, though, might cost him a co-sponsor. Sen. Murkowski said at the hearing she wants to pursue funding and training for Alaska’s tribal courts. Her spokesman Matt Felling says Murkowski has opposed previous proposals to extend Alaska tribal jurisdiction over non-members of the tribe.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka Shops For Teachers At Seattle Fair

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:20

Blatchley Middle School Principal Ben White staffs the Sitka booth at the Seattle teaching fair. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

For school districts in rural Alaska, this is prime recruiting season. Next week, they’ll hold a job fair in downtown Anchorage, looking for teachers to fill hundreds of openings statewide. But they’re also looking outside the 49th state.

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The Sitka School District went looking for teachers over the weekend. Three administrators from Sitka traveled to the Seattle area to attend job fairs full of applicants hoping to teach in Alaska. Casey Demmert is principal of Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. He says there are 14 positions open in Sitka schools, including four at Keet, which serves grades 2 through 5.

“We’re at a point now in Sitka where we are really starting to have turnover with some of our more seasoned veteran teachers. Being able to bring in young teachers who can still get some mentoring and learn from some of those older teachers is important, too.”

Demmert, along with Blatchley Principal Ben White, and special education Director Mandy Evans, attended two different job fairs. The first was a large event in Tacoma open to districts across the Northwest, and the second was a smaller event only for Alaska districts.

That second event was put on by Alaska Teacher Placement, which is a program run by the University of Alaska system. It acts as a gateway for applicants hoping to work in the state. Toni McFadden is manages the teacher placement program. She says districts DO look inside Alaska for people to teach Alaskan children…

“…The problem is, we have a greater need for teachers than what our state is producing. We have a need for teachers to go to our rural communities. We might have teachers very willing to stay in Fairbanks if they went to UAF, or to stay in Anchorage if they went to UAA, finding people willing and excited to go to our rural communities is really more of a challenge.”

Sitka was among 17 Alaska school districts participating in Saturday’s job fair. The state as a whole has about 55 school districts, employing more than 8,100 teachers. Information on teaching jobs in Alaska is available at alaskateacher.org.

Categories: Alaska News

Helicopter Improves Access To Akutan Airport, For Now

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:19

Pilot Todd Engle rolls a barrel of fuel over to the helicopter on his first day flying in Akutan. (Photo by Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

For the past year and a half, people on Akutan have been taking a hovercraft to get to their airport on a different island. Now, the Aleutians East Borough has made the switch to a helicopter as their new airport taxi. The change has been a relief for residents.

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On a typical quiet day in February, Akutan’s school bus had to do something unusual: yield to oncoming traffic — in this case, to a helicopter.

Kids: “The helicopter’s here! Helicopter! Mr. Sharpe, the helicopter!”

The kids’ teacher, Chip Sharpe, was driving them to lunch on the other side of town when the helicopter came in for a landing. This was its second day in service.

The students weren’t the only ones excited about their new airport taxi. Sharpe and others in town were more than ready to say goodbye to the old hovercraft.

Sharpe: ”I had my doubts with the helicopter, you know, but yesterday was a foggy day — it wasn’t real windy, but I can almost guarantee the hovercraft would not have went yesterday because of the fog. And the helicopter, you know, he didn’t seem to mind.”

Both vehicles come from the Aleutians East Borough, which is tasked with getting people from Akutan to the airport. The borough’s community development director Annie Bailey works in Anchorage. She says at a cost of more than $3 million dollars a year, the hovercraft wasn’t sustainable. It only brought in about $350,000 in passenger and freight fees in 2013, according to borough records.

Now, Bailey says they’re contracting with Maritime Helicopters of Homer.

Bailey: ”We anticipate it to be a million dollars less, which is still not affordable, but it’s more affordable.”

For passengers, it costs exactly the same — $100 each way. But Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin says it’s going to be more reliable.

Bereskin: ”I think it’ll do a little better job than the hovercraft did, because they don’t have to worry about water — the swell — which was, in the wintertime, one of the bigger problems for the hovercraft.”

Such a problem, in fact, that the hovercraft could only run about 60 percent of the time. Plus, it took about half an hour to make the trip over. The helicopter does it in five minutes.

One drawback: The chopper can’t haul as much cargo. Outgoing hovercraft captain Alan Burt thinks that’ll be a problem.

Burt: ”To be honest, I think the hovercraft’s the best thing for this place… just because of our capabilities, our load-carrying capabilities.”

But it seems like most Akutan residents are willing to make the trade-off. The biggest items can always be brought in on a barge. And the helicopter can carry some loads in a hanging sling.

Pilot Todd Engle and his mechanic, Ray Simpson, are up for that challenge. They were in Akutan until the end of March, when they tagged out with another crew.

Engle’s got almost a decade of experience, but he’s never flown in the Aleutians.

Engle: ”You know, I’m gonna keep my personal restrictions really conservative for the moment ’til I get familiar with the area. I have a family to go home to at the end of the day, so I’m not going to be pushing any limits, and it’s not worth anybody’s life for getting somebody somewhere.”

They’ve been respecting those restrictions, but Engle and Simpson have been keeping busy.

In February, they spent their first day on the job dealing with a storage container full of packages left behind after the hovercraft service had ended the weekend before. There were medications, groceries, even Christmas presents that had been stuck there since the holidays.

Ropeik: ”So this was your first load of mail?”
Engle: ”First load of mail, yep.”
Ropeik: ”How many do you have to go?”
Engle: ”There’s probably a good six or seven more loads. Maybe more.”

Once he landed in Akutan, Engle unpacked the bags and boxes from the helicopter’s cabin. Ray Simpson and postmaster Kay Bereskin, who is also Mayor Joe Bereskin’s wife, loaded them into a pickup truck.

Kay Bereskin: “I didn’t expect that much — I didn’t expect you to be able to carry that much!”
Simpson: ”I like puzzles.”

There were reasons for residents to be skeptical about the helicopter. The Aleutians East Borough hadn’t worked out fuel storage or permanent housing for the crew before they started running the service.

Still, in the first week, borough records show the chopper carried 44 passengers, 290 pounds of freight and more than 11,000 pounds of mail. And that went a long way toward winning over locals like teacher Chip Sharpe.

Sharpe: ”If what we’ve seen in the last day and a half is any sign of what’s to come, I think we’ll be fine.”

Fine for now — but the helicopter’s still too expensive to keep long-term. That’s the next challenge, even more daunting than trying to fly or hover over the Bering Sea: the challenge of connecting Akutan to its airport for good.

This is the first of a two-part series. Part two: ”Aleutians East Scrambles for Cheaper Link to Akutan Airport.”

Categories: Alaska News

Petersen Trumps Trombley

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:18

Anchorage voters kept four out of five city assembly incumbents in their seats on Tuesday. But two races ended unpredictably by the time the polls closed and most of the votes were tallied up.

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 In East Anchorage, challenger Pete Petersen upset incumbent Adam Trombley, taking nearly 42 percent of the vote. Trombley finished the night with 37 percent, while a third challenger for the District 5 seat, Mao Tosi, took 20 percent.

 Petersen was not shy about declaring victory Tuesday, as supporters rallied around him at election central. Petersen said he’d worked hard for votes.

 ”I’ve been out there talking to people since last October. You know, when you knock on people’s doors and take time to listen to them, they appreciate it, and they get a chance to know you, personally, as a person. It’s not just an add that they see on tv, or an add that they hear on the radio, or a piece of paper in the mail. They’ve actually met you , and I think that makes a big difference. “

If the Peterson-Trombley race is close, the District 6 race is a real squeaker. Three candidates are vying for that seat, to be vacated by a termed out Assemblyman. By Tuesday night’s count, Bill Evans had 41 percent of the vote, while Bruce Dougherty had just under 39 percent. The third candidate, Pete Nolan, has 19 percent of the vote.

Anchorage voters also passed eight out of nine ballot propositions. A five point five million dollar bond package aimed at library improvements and a ballpark relocation failed by a narrow margin.

City election officials say the six thousand outstanding absentee and early ballots should be tallied next week.   Questioned ballots, by city law, have to be counted the day after an election, and that process started on Wednesday.  Official election results will be certified on April 15.

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Native Village CEOs Association Conference Addresses Land Contamination

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:17

Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, more than 200 village corporations were promised land in and around their communities. At a meeting of the Alaska Native Village CEOs Association in Anchorage this week, participants described the problems they’re encountering with the contaminated lands that were conveyed to them.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 2, 2014

Wed, 2014-04-02 17:09

Individual news 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.

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Tribal Judge: Bill to Improve Village Public Safety Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee today looked at a raft of bills aimed at improving the safety of Native American communities, including Alaska Native villages. A bill that would strengthen Alaska tribal courts and tribal law enforcement drew no opposition at the hearing, but the bill is likely to become more controversial.

Most Citizen Measures Could Make November Ballot

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Between a contested Senate primary and a mess of ballot questions, the August primary election is expected to be particularly lively. But a set of unusual circumstances and odd timing has the potential to push all but one of the citizen measures to the November general election, if the Legislature gavels out late.

Sitka Shops For Teachers At Seattle Fair

Ed Ronco, KPLU – Seattle

For school districts in rural Alaska, this is prime recruiting season. Next week, they’ll hold a job fair in downtown Anchorage, looking for teachers to fill hundreds of openings statewide. But they’re also looking outside the 49th state.

Helicopter Improves Access To Akutan Airport, For Now

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

For the past year and a half, people on Akutan have been taking a hovercraft to get to their airport on a different island. Now, the Aleutians East Borough has made the switch to a helicopter as their new airport taxi. The change has been a relief for residents.

Petersen Trumps Trombley

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Voters in Alaska’s largest city elected six municipal assembly seats Tuesday, but with thousands of absentee and early ballots still to be counted, the outcomes of some races may change.

Alaska Native Village CEOs Association Conference Addresses Land Contamination

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, more than 200 village corporations were promised land in and around their communities. At a meeting of the Alaska Native Village CEOs Association in Anchorage this week, participants described the problems they’re encountering with the contaminated lands that were conveyed to them.

Categories: Alaska News
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