(By Heidi Zemach for Seward City News)
The City of Seward is ready to take by Eminent Domain property along the Seward Highway deemed necessary for the construction of a flood prevention levee. The project was one of several that resulted from a flood mitigation task force, developed at the request of FEMA following major flooding events in Seward over the past 20 years. The Forest Acres levee is meant to divert floodwater from flooding over the Seward Highway and the airport. At Mondays bi-monthly meeting the city council passed a resolution to take the property. The Track B Dieckgraeff-Gillespie Replat is a 2.35 acre of undeveloped land on the west side of Seward Highway, south of the Resurrection River. The owners also own the adjacent 4.6 acre un-subdivided parcel south of Tract B. The city wants to acquire a 14,000 square foot public use easement (PUE) on Tract B by legal means because six months of negotiations with the owners over a fair price for the land proved fruitless. After another appraisal, the city plans to take the property and pay what it feels is a fair price. The city also has offered to develop a new driveway to their remaining land.
For at least two of the council members, the legal taking of private property was approved with a heavy heart. But after a decade of the city negotiating with agencies such as State of Alaska DOT, FEMA, Kenai Peninsula Borough, State Floodplain manager, Alaska Railroad, over where to locate the levee, and having acquired the other properties, Vanta Shafer and Marianna Keil said they couldnt back down now. Council member Linda Amberg, who owns an insurance company, declared a conflict of interest and recused herself from the discussion and the vote, as she represents the landowners. Tom Smith was absent. The vote was 5-0.
The morality of taking private property wasnt the only ethical issue to surface during the debate. Another issue was how much to tell the public. City Manager Phillip Oates detailed the content of the citys negotiations with the landowners, including the four different prices offered for purchasing various different configurations of land. The highest price offer by the city came to $135,700. The last and final offer, however, was approximately $56,000, Oates said.
Although Cheryl Brooking, the city solicitor, warned him mid-speech that his level of detail should not be made public, Oates disagreed. He said the public needed to know the city had done everything it could, and more, to reach a settlement. The previous discussion of the issue had been held recently in executive session, closed to media and public as it concerned negotiations. But once Mayor Willard Dunham more or less ordered Oates not to continue talking numbershe was about to tell the amount of owners final offerOates conceded, and merely said that the difference was substantial.
The city must now wait 30 days to see if the owners accept the offer or decide to challenge the takings legality. Although one of the landowners was present at the meeting, he chose not to speak. But Tim McDonald of Nash Road, said that the citys offer of $56,000 was a pittance for people who had owned, and paid taxes on the property for 30 years.
- (Photo: Oates in new building with new generators 1 and 2 at far right)
In other action, the council agreed to allocate $265,000 more for the Fort Raymond Generator Project, a project to bring together six diesel power generators in a single location, to be used by Seward Electric for back-up power during emergencies. The additional funding will be used to connect and commission Generator 2, which is already located in the new generator building alongside Generator 1. The city says the money is needed because funding for the original scope of work was insufficient as the result of changes made mid-project, including expansion and relocation of the building. Once that engine is commissioned, the utility will begin moving generators 4 and 5 into the large new building. They are currently housed nearby in Arctic Packs, outdoor buildings that provide cover and protection, but not heatwhich would make them more efficient, according to longtime plant operator Charles Forrest. Once all six generators are on line, the city will be able to provide emergency power beyond the existing areato Moose Pass, and perhaps beyond.
During a work session/tour of the new generator facility on Monday, Shafer and Keil questioned Oates about what city residents should expect in future costs for the project. Oates admitted that each new stage for the project would require additional funding. Next year, Oates also plans to ask the council to allow the city to hire additional employees for the electric departmentincluding a full time person who would be trained to operate the diesel generators, and could replace Forrest when he retires.
Another resolution that passed concerned the adoption of a surveillance camera policy. It generated some heated debate at the meeting. Because the meeting had not finished by 10:30 p.m. Monday, it continued for another hour Tuesday night. The Seward Police Department requested that the policy be adopted in order for it to accept a $350,000 grant from the Homeland Security Administration to upgrade and renovate Sewards existing surveillance system. That system currently consists of eight surveillance cameras placed at the boat harbor and the Seward Municipal Industrial Complex. They were installed in 2004 to help protect city infrastructure and property and to deter crime, according to city officials. Initially, crimes such as vandalism were reduced in those areas, even when the cameras werent working, Oates said. Their use has resulted in at least two arrests that hes aware of, and the successful conclusion of a boat fire investigation, said SPD Chief Tom Clemons. With the funding Clemons hopes to be able to upgrade the system, replace the damaged cameras, and have extras to place in other areassuch as to protect a new city water tower, if one is built.
One part of the draft surveillance policy debated concerned Section VI: Location Of Cameras: City Council approval is required of all surveillance camera locations in areas other than the critical infrastructure identified in the latest vulnerability for the City of Seward from Alaska Homeland Security. Any exception to this requirement for covert surveillance requires the approval of the city manager who will notify the mayor. Exceptions could also occur as directed by court order, the draft policy stated.
Apologizing to Dunham and Oates, Shafer said the section gave government officials yet unnamed opportunities for the abuse of power over unsuspecting citizens, never envisioned by our Founding Fathers. We have to be really careful about doing this. Ten to 20 years down the road, you dont know what could happen, Shafer said. We are the body that protects the people. She proposed that the council be consulted in executive session prior to any temporary camera placement. But Dunham didnt think a council could be called together on short notice to prevent criminal activity. Plus he said: The more people you notify, the worse it gets. I dont (even) like the idea that you have to notify the mayor. We dont want to get involved in this.
In the end, the council amended the policy to allow the council to be informed of a temporary camera use 24-hours AFTER an arrest is made, and with only the city manager notified by police prior to its placement.
Keil also wanted the policy to reflect that any employee who abuses a citizens privacy via surveillance be fired. This was not consistent with the employee personnel policy, and increased the possibility of lawsuits, Oates said. Linda Amberg asked where an employees right to employment was more important than the right to privacy. Finally, the council decided that any employee suspected of violating a citizens privacy be “immediately suspended”– at least pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter.
At Keils urging, council also amended the policy to state that all the surveillance cameras in public areas be accompanied by signs notifying the public of their presence. The council already would be required to approve of placing any cameras in public areassuch as the skate park.
Even with the amendments approved, Keil was the only one to vote against the resolution. She explained to SCN afterwards that she just doesnt agree with the use of surveillance cameras. Knowing that the resolution would be passed by the others, she tried to make sure that it had all the protections it could, Keil said.
Speaking after the meetings each night Tim McDonald said he appreciated that surveillance would make the police departments job easier but added, This is Seward! Whats all this Big Brother stuff? He also accused the council of holding too many meetings in executive session– even fiscally important ones such as negotiations over extending the lease of the SMIC Drydock.