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From Our Listeners
ANCHORAGE — A Coast Guardsman who found the bodies of two murdered co-workers thought at first they were pranking him.
Petty Officer Cody Beaufort said Wednesday he was preparing for a transfer on April 12, 2012, and could not believe what he saw when he reported for work at about 7:30 a.m. at the Coast Guard’s Kodiak Communication Station.
An investigation surrounding missing evidence from the North Slope Borough Police Department is underway in Barrow after money and drugs disappeared at the department more than a year ago. As of Tuesday, the borough is in the process of hiring an investigator to look into the allegations.
ANCHORAGE — Two Republicans running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told a crowd of Alaska Native leaders at a candidates forum that they value subsistence, but they stopped short of answering a question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review the state’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling on rural fishing and hunting rights.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former state natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan spoke Tuesday at the Alaska Native Village CEO Association conference, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
ANCHORAGE — Genetic variation in more than 300 polar bears from Alaska was analyzed in a recent study that looked at genetic elements not used in earlier studies.
The study was conducted by University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Matthew Cronin, who worked with colleagues at the University of California Davis and Montclair State University in New Jersey, the Anchorage Daily News reported this week.
You got in! But just how much money is that school offering you? Financial aid award letters can be confusing, so we've put together a sample letter — and translated it into plain English.
After a horrendous October rollout, the ACA is viewed a little more favorably now. But the number of people who intensely oppose the law is 12 percentage points higher than those who strongly back it.
A day after an 8.2-magnitude quake, the northern coast of Chile was struck by an aftershock that triggered a tsunami alert and caused a precautionary evacuation of low-lying areas.
Pauline Fredrickson was born in Cordova, Alaska, in 1929 and relocated as a child first to Chichagof Island and then to Sitka, where she has remained to raise her family, and lead us all with her wise, generous spirit. She dropped by Raven Radio to record a tribute to the station called Build on the Good, which you can listen to here. On her way out she insisted on a photo-op with KCAW News Director Robert Woolsey, her next-door neighbor for 27 years!
During her recording session, Pauline offered many thoughts and observations about her nearly-85 years as an Alaskan, which we will share from time to time on our airwaves and on our Facebook page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”