Dust-up isn’t over bronze whale erection

Bronze whale being transported to its final destination near the Douglas Bridge in Juneau in August.



Win Gruening

In my last column, I discussed how the word “divisive” is often over-used and misused.  Mostly its use is an attempt to squelch debate and paint someone else’s argument as unworthy of further discussion.

Another way to do the same thing is to ascribe all sorts of hidden motives to the person you disagree with in the hopes some will stick – discrediting their argument to the point it is no longer being heard.

Typically, you might find this tactic in extreme left and right wing political blogs where there are “no-holds barred” and civility and measured responses are non-existent.

But you don’t see this kind of behavior often in our local newspaper – let alone in the editorial pages. I’m referring to the Sept. 6 Empire Readers Council editorial regarding the pending cruise industry lawsuit against the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ).

Facts and reason are suspended in their lengthy editorial and one wonders if the writers just ran out of words due to their inability to grapple with the real issues.

The editorial begins by misstating the basis of the lawsuit when it says the cruise industry is “challenging Juneau’s fee for cruise ship passengers.”

Not so.  The marine passenger fee being charged is not at issue. Clearly, it is legal to charge such a fee and other communities in various parts of the country including Alaska have done exactly that for years.

What is being challenged is how the fees are spent. Under Federal and State law, the fees can only be used for limited purposes. After years of disagreement and a lack of response to their concerns, the cruise industry took legal action as a last resort.  In that lawsuit, they contend CBJ has over-reached by going far beyond the legal definition of permissible uses.

The lawsuit details funding, among other questionable items, a seawalk, 2.6 acre artificial island, and associated park improvements located over a mile from the cruise ship docks.


The editorial writers confuse the issue further by arguing marine passenger fees have funded wharves and other infrastructure improvements for passenger safety and efficiency.   The editorial also points out the controversial erection of a bronze whale was secured by private donations.

While true, these items are not the basis for this lawsuit.

The editorial points out no cruise ship passengers have signed on to the lawsuit and therefore makes the writers “wonder whether the complaints advanced by the cruise lines are legitimate.” Legally, the cruise lines are responsible for collecting and remitting the tax and passengers view it as part of the price of a cruise.

Juneau competes with other cruise destinations for traveling passengers so don’t the cruise lines have a stake in the fees they are mandated to collect?  And since marine passenger fees are legally required to benefit the ship and the passenger, shouldn’t the industry be allowed to object if fees are being spent incorrectly or frivolously?

Think about this. Since the use of the fees has been called into question, wouldn’t a negotiated settlement be preferable to losing the lawsuit altogether?  And why wouldn’t CBJ want a clarification of permissible uses?

But since the ERC editorial was unable to refute the basis for the lawsuit, it launches into multiple conspiracy theories.  The writers speculate the lawsuit is nothing more than a political ploy to intimidate CBJ.  They hypothesize the industry is trying to lower the fee and is singling Juneau out to warn other cruise ship destinations they better not follow Juneau’s lead.

They offer no proof but accuse the industry of threats, bluster, and animosity towards Juneau. And that’s just the beginning.

What has me scratching my head is the attitude of the Empire Readers Council that leads them to portray the cruise industry as an enemy.  Why does our local newspaper editorial council take such an adversarial position regarding this lawsuit instead of treating it for what it is – a disagreement among business partners that should be settled by mutual negotiation?

As one of our economy’s most important contributors, the cruise industry has supported many of Juneau’s charities, provided thousands of jobs for Juneau residents (especially school age kids and retirees) and been a spring board for scores of small businesses.  The cruise industry generates almost $8 million in sales taxes for Juneau in addition to over $14 million in passenger and docking fees each year.

The dismissive tone of the ERC editorial, headlined in part “lawsuit is nothing but hot air”, does nothing to promote “working together” or to encourage the industry “to work thoughtfully….to make Juneau a worthy tourist destination” as the writers envision.

Regrettably, the ERC editorial further bolsters CBJ’s intractable position which is what led the cruise industry to file the lawsuit in the first place.

Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations. The editorial to which this commentary refers appeared in The Juneau Empire on Sept. 6.