By DAVID IGNELL
I want to thank the League of Women Voters for co-sponsoring last week’s election forum with KTOO, KINY and the Juneau Empire. Their mission to educate voters and ensure fair elections is to be applauded and promoted, especially when our democracy is hanging by a thread.
It was an honor to be asked to debate City Manager Rorie Watt at the forum and to represent the “No” vote side on Proposition One, regarding the proposed new city hall.
I care deeply about Juneau and its future. My family has been part of this community for over 70 years and helped establish the Glory Hall and Haven House.
The day after our debate, Juneau voters began to receive a voter information booklet mailed by city ofﬁcials to “educate” us. Many of us were disturbed to read the biased, one-sided propaganda in favor of Proposition One that dominates the official guide. Key “facts” are grossly misleading. No opposing viewpoint is offered.
The booklet states with certainty the construction cost of the new city hall is $43.3 million. It‘s silent about a city staff memo dated May 3 acknowledging bids on other projects were 1.5 to 1.8 times the estimated cost.
City officials have known for months construction costs of the proposed city hall could easily be $65 to $80 million, yet their official guide avoids any mention of that probability.
During our debate, Rorie Watt acknowledged this “big inﬂation” is real. He admitted they might need to “value engineer” the project and a downsized structure was possible. He claimed not to be selling “blue sky,” yet by omitting critical material disclosures in the official guide he’s done exactly that.
Not surprisingly, the booklet’s FAQs are silent about the $2 million estimated annual debt service for a $27 million bond. If the construction cost balloons to $70 million, that annual expense will double to $4 million.
The booklet asserts the city pays $820,000 in rent, which is highly misleading. Back on June 2, Watt admitted to me the $820,000 includes utilities, janitorial services, maintenance, etc. These items are operating expenses the City and Borough of Juneau would still have to pay if they owned the buildings they occupy.
Those operating expenses are estimated to total $550,000, meaning the true rental cost is only $270,000, a third of what City officials claim.
Truth and transparency by our local government have sunk to new lows. Prop One is fiscally absurd, considering these numbers. City officials want to spend $4 million in construction and ﬁnancing costs each year to save us just $270,000 in rent.
The ballot proposition for the proposed new city hall was first rejected by voters a year ago without any organized opposition. The City retaliated by significantly increasing our property taxes and earmarking $10 million toward their coveted luxury office building.
When Watt recommended the issue re-appear on the ballot, public testimony was nearly unanimously opposed. Yet the Assembly rejected us and then gave Watt $50,000 to drown out our voices before the election.
Last year the Assembly voted against using public funds to solicit votes for the new city hall on ethical grounds. This year, however, they crossed the Rubicon. What’s next? Using city funds to solicit votes for political candidates they think are in the best public interest?
Perhaps Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence said it best: “Although we give lip service to the notion of freedom, we know the government is no longer the servant of the people but, at last, has become the people’s master.”
A variety of state laws are likely being broken by City officials acting as our master, but who will stop them after the fact? Even if State officials get involved, how will these actions be unwound?
Our best bet to stop this government tyranny is to first vote NO on Proposition One and choose Assembly candidates who have taken a sensible stand against it.
Afterward, have a special grand jury investigate this entire affair and report their findings and recommendations to the public. They can best determine whether our City officials are under the influence of any special interests.
Under our Constitution, the public is entitled to know the truth through a panel of 15 randomly selected Juneau citizens with subpoena power.
By next year’s election, we’ll be more informed. Like the League of Women Voters, that is also the fundamental objective of an investigative grand jury.
David Ignell was born and raised in Juneau. He is a forensic journalist and author of a recent book on the Alaska Grand Jury.