Heidi Zemach for SCN
With council members Ristine Casagranda and Jean Bardarson absent, and Christy Terry sitting out the vote, the remaining Seward City Council split their vote 2-2, and therefore nixed a resolution appropriating $208,150.00 of Commercial Passenger Vessel (CPV) Tax Funds toward some improvements to the Alaska Railroad Corporation Cruise Ships Terminal, at its meeting Monday night (Nov 26).
The appropriation, that already had received the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s approval, and support from Seward city administrators, was to provide pavement repairs and striping at the terminal, and replace some depleted passive anodes which help prevent rusting from occurring below the cruise ship dock. The taxes would have been spent “in support of cruise ships and their passengers,” which is what that particular tax, collected from each passenger that travels, is meant to be used for.
The terminal parking area can be highly confusing for tour buses and cruise ship passengers, said Assistant “Acting” City Manager Ron Long. These repairs would mark travel areas more clearly with lines, and provide signs pointing to where buses and passengers should go as they navigate terminal. Especially confusing for newcomers is where they should drop off their luggage, which is taken into a Connex container, far to one side of the parking lot, across some old railroad tracks.
What happened Monday night was the result of a somewhat confusing numbers game. It began when Council member Christy Terry, ARRC’s Dock Operations Manager volunteered the fact that in her position, she might be perceived as having a conflict of interest in this case. But she added that she did not think that she did actually have a conflict, as she does not stand to gain financially from improvements made to the terminal facility. According to city code regarding conflict of interest, a representative is not able to discuss an issue or vote on it if they have a direct or indirect financial interest in the matter at hand.
Mayor Seaward ruled that she did, in fact have a conflict of interest, although he said he could not prove that she stood to gain financially by her involvement in the decision. “Being a dock manager shows there’s something. I don’t see it as right, and I personally do not support it,” he said. He later implied that there might be a promotion in it for the council woman.
Councilwoman Marianna Keil said that the mayor couldn’t rule that way if he could not demonstrate that a council member would have a financial gain. City Attorney Cheryl Brooking proffered the opinion that while the Seward City Code specifies that a conflict of interest requires a clear or substantial financial gain, Common Law takes the perception of conflict of interest a step further—including the possibility of an elected representative in some way gaining for their actions, or what it calls the “Duty of Loyalty,” which seemed to be what the mayor was implying.
Prior to the vote to override the mayor’s ruling Council man Bob Valdatta announced he was on the mayor’s side this time. He and Seaward voted to uphold Seaward’s conflict of interest ruling. Council members Marianna Keil and Vanta Shafer voted against it. So it was upheld, and Terry had to sit out the discussion and vote.
“My heartburn is who makes the decision on what gets done on the docks,” Valdatta said. He raised several other objections to the projects that the railroad had proposed because he felt his own ideas were more important—such as taking out the rails that cross the passenger’s path to the luggage containers, installing a covered walkway, installing a speaker system in the terminal to notify travelers of what’s happening, and so on. He also felt that the anodes replacement work should be done with Maintenance, Repair and Replacement funds—not with cruise ship tax money.
The “MRRF” has been referred to as a pot of city funds set aside for repairs to aging city property however, not for repairs to private ARRC property.
When it came to the vote, Council member Vanta Shafer and Mayor David Seaward voted for the resolution. Council members Keil and Valdata voted against it. It takes a minimum of four votes to pass a resolution. On Tuesday Keil, who was on the prevailing side, as she had deliberately put herself there by voting “no” although she supports the appropriation, was thus able to call for a reconsideration of the vote at the next council meeting, when a full council might be present. Tuesday, ARRC Dock Manager Louis Bencardio said he did not understand why Valdatta had such ill will toward the railroad, which provides so many jobs and services to the community. But he was sure that the council would approve the resolution at their next meeting.
Incidentally, it had been the second conflict of interest ruling at the meeting. Shafer, who owns the newspaper The Seward Journal, declared she had a financial-based conflict of interest regarding a vote on a resolution awarding the city’s annual contract to the Seward Phoenix Log for publishing city notices. The Journal had also bid on the contract, but the Log had been selected as the low bidder. No-one had contested that Shafer had a conflict, and she did not participate in the discussion or vote.
(Note: I have worked two summers at the cruise ship terminal and can attest to the confusion of the passengers, bus drivers, taxi drivers at that location. The passengers always seemed amazed and at times upset that they have to trundle their suitcases such a distance across the gravely wet parking area to check them in themselves, or that they have to walk half a mile from the Alaska Railroad up Port Avenue to the cruise ship terminal. The only reason things run so smoothly at the terminal is the amazing, professional conduct of the workers, and the tight organization that they run: HZ)