Railroad repairs fall victim to numbers

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.



Advertisement

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)

Advertisement

8 Comments

  1. Just a thought... says:

    Why does the city allow council members who only live in Seward for half the year?

    • Are council members not allowed to take vacations? I know that one of the missing members is on an extended vacation which is still a shorter amount of time then the mayor has taken in his term. Once again I have to question why so many people insist on being negative ALL THE TIME. No wonder so much doesn’t happen in this town.

  2. Because people let it happen.

    • David Seaward says:

      It’s e everyone’s duty to pay attention and get involved in politics. At the time of election, I did state on my website and at the candidates forum that I work 2×2 schedule. There was every opportunity to vote against me.

      I have attended every council meeting to vote on city business.

      You have the freedom to recall me anytime. Just state your case, connect with like-minded people, and just do it. From the results of recent local election, you have a good chance.

      I apologize for any misunderstanding. I have been open and transparent regarding who I am, what I stand for, and my current working status.

      • Some of us, a large number of us, would have loved to have the opportunity to vote against (or for) you and couldn’t because we choose to live past the bridges….. Please do not address Seward as a whole when speaking about the opportunity to recall your position of power. Most of us do NOT have that right or power. I, personally, would not have voted for you however will acknowledge that you do your best to be involved given your work schedule. My previous post was in regards to the absolute negativity towards the council members who choose to vacation with their families. Not to bag on you, Mr. Mayor.

  3. Maintenance and upgrades of the ARR dock are defiantly needed for the safety, productivity, and convience of the people that use and work at the facility. The money for that should be built into the ARR budget and not subsidized by the head tax money. The Railroad receives millions of State and Federal $$$ for maintenance and operations, as well as all of the tax free warfage, dockage and rent from every user of the facility. They fought tooth and nail against the head tax stating that it would destroy the Alaska cruise industry. Now that passenger counts are as high as ever they can’t wait to get their hands on the money….

    Chuck Wendt

  4. Well said Chuck.

    The goal of the Council should be to select projects for the Cruise Ship Head Tax Revenue that will benefit the cruise industry but will ALSO benefit the average residents who don’t work in tourism but live here year round.

    The shuttle bus system has at least some benefits to other aspects of the community. How about repairing sidewalks, re-striping crosswalks, planting flowers and providing other amenities around the community or other projects that are both relatively low cost and would benefit all of Seward and not just a small segment.

    The AKRR Dock is privately owned, and as a business, they should be able to maintain their facilities without these dollars, especially considering the countless millions of dollars they recieve from the state and federal government in subsidies as well as their quasi-public status that allows them to save millions in tax dollars that any other business would have to pay to local, state, and federal governments. If the parking lot needs paving and striping, it should be paid for by the owners of the property.

    Paying for exclusively private development puts the city in an awkward position. If they will pay to stripe the AKRR parking lot, why not Safeway’s. Why won’t they pave the parking area at ‘the cup’ or pave the Iditaride entry area. We should not use public funds for private purposes unless there is a clear benefit to the entire public.

  5. I don’t know if it’s still the case but when I was a longshoreman (until 2005), the railroad collected their own head tax on every passenger that crossed the dock, either arriving or departing. I think the number was $3.75 per head, both ways. The city received $0 as their share of the railroad “head tax”. The city still does not collect a head tax. The state does and doles out shares as they see fit to coastal communities to improve the experience for tourists (cruise ship passengers).

    The state still owns the railroad, even though the railroad disputes this. The railroad claims to be a “stand alone corporation”, that is until it comes to being property tax exempt because they are a state entity. The railroad purchased Suneel Coal facility from Suneel (a $9 million “state grant” for the purchase), who was paying substantial property tax on the facility. The railroad then claimed tax exempt status as a state entity and leased the coal facility back to the very company that they purchased it from (tax exempt). How is that for fairness to Seward? The railroad constructed a $27 million spur into the airport in Anchorage just for cruise ship passengers. Alaskan residents aren’t allowed to use this convenience unless they are a cruise ship passenger. I don’t think Anchorage put up one dime for that travesty. The railroad makes a ton of money USING the port of Seward. I think they have one or maybe two employees that live in Seward. The railroad provides zip other than that for Seward without a tidy profit for them. For the railroad to even ask for Seward to pay for upgrades to their “stand alone corporate” facility is ridiculous. The railroad has ignored sorely needed maintenance on the Seward dock for decades. Now they want to do maintenance and upgrades to their “private” corporate facility at the expense of Seward. Remember how the railroad stood up for Seward when the cruise ships moved to Whittier? They didn’t, because they still made their money by railroading passengers from Whittier.

    One thing I can say is, boy, they have large brass ones.

    Don’t kid yourself. The railroad will dump Seward like a hot potato if they ever find an alternative, like point McKenzie.

    Seward mini-politicians–take notice.

    Carl Norman