Recall election spotlights political division in Haines

A sign supporting the Haines recall campaign. (Credit: Abbey Collins)

On Tuesday, Haines voters will decide whether to recall half of their borough assembly. Three assembly members are accused of misconduct in office. But the discontent driving the recall is about much more than the official charges. And the recall leaders have repeatedly refused to defend their views on the record.

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“I’m an obituary writer, and I feel as if there’s been a death in my family,” Assembly member Heather Lende described the personal toll of the recall. “And the grief is going to stay with me.”

Lende, Tom Morphet and Tresham Gregg are the targets of this recall election.

“Politics in Haines has always been a very rough game,” Morphet said.

The three recall targets spoke during a public forum organized by Haines media. More than 30 recall sponsors or supporters were invited. None agreed to participate.

In fact, the recall’s main sponsor, Don Turner Jr. has not agreed to any on-tape interviews with KHNS or on-the-record interviews with the newspaper. Instead, he and other recall leaders have used Facebook, newspaper advertisements and a 10-page mailer to share their views.

The only recall sponsor who talked to KHNS on tape is Ryan Cook. In a June interview, he said he and others started looking into a recall almost as soon as Morphet and Lende took office last October. Cook was a losing candidate in that race.

“This town’s always been split on lots of different issues,” Cook said in June. “But since this assembly’s been in, you’ve never seen it so split before.”

Cook and Turner handed in recall petitions in April. They included several charges against the assembly members. Two of those charges made it past the borough attorney.

The attorney emphasized that a recall is a political, not legal process. He did not investigate the charges, but said two of them, if assumed to be true, would constitute misconduct in office.

One is an alleged violation of the Alaska Open Meetings Act by all three assembly members. The accusation is based on an email in which Gregg asks for Lende’s support on an upcoming vote. He wrote that two other assembly members, Morphet and Ron Jackson, are on the same page. This could imply that Gregg participated in ‘serial polling’ or ‘serial meetings’ – a gray area in open meetings law.

“I don’t think that one little email that asks for some support is really an offense worth of recall,” Gregg said.

The second accusation is that Morphet and Lende coerced a subordinate for personal or financial gain. It stems from a debate over the Haines police blotter. The police chief, Heath Scott, stopped releasing the blotter to the newspaper, which Morphet owned at the time, and Lende writes obituaries for. Both Morphet and Lende spoke out in support of the blotter being made public again.

The two assembly members say calling that coercion of the police chief is absurd.

“It strikes me as strange that a grandmother of six somehow has brought the Haines police department to its knees over the police blotter,” Lende said.

Recall supporters maintain that the assembly members abused their power in these two cases. But the effort to oust them is about more than the grounds listed on the petitions.

The evidence of that is in the ads and flier recall leader Turner has put out. He accuses the assembly members of yelling at borough employees and going against ‘75 percent’ of the people in their decisions. He also points to the assembly firing a previous borough manager and hiring the current manager as ‘good reasons for recall.’

“A recall is a gun held to the head of an elected leader,” Morphet said, in response to a question about people voting for the recall for reasons not listed on the ballot. “I ask that people honor the intent of the system and consider the recall only on the grounds on which it was brought.”

If early voting is an indication, public interest in the recall election is strong. Borough manager Debra Schnabel said early voting has been ‘unprecedented,’ with more than 30 ballots cast on certain days.

If the recall is successful and all three assembly members lose their seats, Haines will be voting for its entire six-person assembly in October. If Morphet, Lende and Gregg retain their seats on the assembly, Ryan Cook said it’s possible the recall sponsors could try again.

“If they prove to us they can’t follow the rules and they give us a reason to [recall them,]’” Cook said. “I don’t know. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do it again ever.”

One thing Cook and the assembly members agree on is that the recall has been challenging. It’s divided people and damaged friendships.

Whether the acrimony continues after the Aug. 15 election remains to be seen.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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