Four of the six people on the Petersburg borough assembly could be facing a recall election. A group of local residents has turned in applications to the borough seeking a recall petition for assembly members Jeigh Stanton Gregor, Nancy Strand, Kurt Wohlhueter and Eric Castro. The borough’s attorney is reviewing the applications.
The primary contacts on the recall application are Petersburg Municipal Power and Light employee Gary Morgan and former city mayor Ted Smith. The application alleges the assembly members violated Alaska’s Open Meetings Act at a May 30th meeting of the borough assembly by going into a closed-door, executive session. That session was to discuss the re-organization of the borough department heads following the retirement of Power and Light superintendent Joe Nelson last month. The applicants allege the reasons given for the closed door session were not specific enough and did not qualify for executive session under state law.
“Basically there are some exemptions that allow you to go into executive session but none of those qualifications were met,” Morgan explained.
State law sets specific reasons for an elected body like a borough assembly to hold a meeting closed to the public. They are only three: “(1) matters, the immediate knowledge of which would clearly have an adverse effect upon the finances of the government unit; (2) subjects that tend to prejudice the reputation and character of any person, provided the person may request a public discussion; and (3) matters which by law, municipal charter or ordinance are required to be confidential.”
Morgan does not think the May 30th meeting met those standards. “Financial, it has to have a direct and adverse effect on the borough’s finances,” he said. “In this case having this meeting in the open wasn’t going to cost the borough any money. It’s a proposed restructuring. Personnel issues, you have specifically say one person or multiple people and those people have the right to decide if this is aired publicly if they so chose, or go into executive session. No one was named.”
Morgan has opposed the borough manager’s proposal to reorganize department heads and have the public works director take over supervision of the electrical department.
Among the others sponsors of the application are another former mayor, Mark Jensen. He resigned as borough mayor in May over concerns with the proposed re-organization. Other sponsors are Jensen’s brother John, former city councilor Dave Israelson and current school board member Brandi Marohl.
Under Alaska state law, grounds for recall are misconduct in office, incompetence or failure to perform prescribed duties.
The assembly had already had an open discussion on the issue at their prior meeting May 15th. Assembly members Jeigh Stanton Gregor and Bob Lynn and mayor Jensen during that open discussion all expressed interest in having a closed door executive session on the topic at their following meeting.
“I think I’d have felt much more comfortable if this was in executive session that so we can discuss other parts of this facets of this, rather than have this as a public discussion,” Lynn said at that May 15 meeting. “And then at the same time if you wanna have some job descriptions, alternative job descriptions available to go through ‘em and to argue out the points of one versus another…”
“I agree if this discussion goes any further if it’s going to hurt anybody’s reputation or whatever, it should be in executive session, should have been in executive session,” Jensen said. “I guess maybe I should have pushed the issue and we had it in executive session.”
Jensen resigned three days later. Then the assembly held their closed door discussion during their meeting on May 30th. It lasted over an hour and included borough manager Steve Giesbrecht along with public works director Karl Hagerman.
Nancy Strand made the motion to go into the closed meeting on May 30th. “The assembly will adjourn to executive session to discuss potential financial, safety and personnel matters relating to the proposed restructuring of Petersburg’s electric utility,” Strand said.
Mayor Cindi Lagoudakis and assembly member Lynn voted with the rest of the assembly to go into that closed meeting. Those two are not subject to recall applications. The terms for Lynn, Lagoudakis and new appointee Jeff Meucci all run out in October. State law does not allow recall of someone within 180 days of their term ending.
Wohlhueter said he is not surprised by the recall but does not understand the reason behind it. “It’s one of the processes I think that we allow our citizens to be able keep us in check you know,” Wohlhueter said. “It’s hard to fathom on what grounds seeing how we consulted with our attorney before we went ahead with the executive discussion to make sure we weren’t out of line and they told us that we weren’t out of line to go into executive session for the reasons that we stated that we were going to go into executive session for.”
Wohlhueter noted that some past elected officials are among those seeking the recall. “They had the opportunity of not having to worry about where the money’s coming from. They had money coming in. Their only big worry was how they were gonna spend the money when it came in. Now we’re trying to figure out where we’re gonna get the money and how we’re gonna spend it. There’s gonna be some changes for sure. It’s not an easy task at this point and I would applaud anybody who wants to take my place to step up because I’m certainly not the brightest bulb in the marquee.”
Jeigh Stanton Gregor and Nancy Strand declined to comment on the recall applications and KFSK phoned and emailed Castro Wednesday but did not hear back.
If recall petitions are issued, residents would have 60 days to collect signatures. State law also sets time frames for when a special election would be required or if the question can appear on a general election ballot.
Petersburg’s last recall vote was in 2009, when Lee Corrao was removed from the city council. That too was for allegations of violating state open meeting law.
The borough election this October will already be deciding who will be Petersburg’s mayor and the other two assembly seats not covered in the recall.