Haines Assembly members survive divisive recall election

Tresham Gregg, Heather Lende and Tom Morphet take part in a public forum about the recall election. No recall proponents agreed to participate. (Abbey Collins)

After a contentious recall vote Tuesday, three embattled Haines Assembly members will continue to serve out their terms. Nearly 60 percent of Haines voters rejected the allegations of official misconduct.

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As Haines residents filtered into the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall to vote Tuesday, many said they did not want share their thoughts about the recall on the record. But among those who did, some common themes emerged.

“I think the recall thing is kind of stupid today,” Dezra Burkes said. “But I’m here.”

Burkes said the recall grounds just aren’t serious enough to kick anyone out of office.

“It just seems like a bunch of he said, she said nitpicky stuff going on right now,” Burkes said.

The recall effort goes back four months. Recall leaders claimed assembly members Tom Morphet, Tresham Gregg and Heather Lende abused their power by violating the Open Meetings Act and coercing a subordinate borough employee.

The open meetings charge stems from an email one assembly member sent another asking for support on an upcoming vote. The coercion charge comes from when Morphet and Lende advocated for the local police blotter to be made public. Recall leaders said that amounted to coercing the police chief for personal gain, since each had a stake in the newspaper, which publishes the blotter.

“I think that they’re guilty,” Laura McCoy said. She voted ‘yes’ to recall all three.

“It has to do with the way that they’re doing business, and it’s not right,” McCoy said. “Not right at all. They’re doing business when it’s not assembly time and then they come in there with a preconceived notion of this is what we’re gonna do.”

In the final weeks leading up to the election, a recall leader took out advertisements and distributed mailers criticizing the assembly members for a slew of reasons that weren’t actually part of what voters saw on the ballot. In the end, many residents thought the accusations didn’t fit the bill.

“They don’t seem substantial enough to cause this much expense and time, in a time when the borough is struggling financially,” voter Mary Jean Sebens said. “It seems ridiculous.”

Along with Sebens, about 60 percent of Haines voters said ‘no’ to the recall, according to initial results. For those on the assembly, it’s a relief.

“It’s nice to know that the community of Haines hasn’t gone to the dark side in what are really openly troubled times,” Heather Lende said. “And it’s nice to know that we still believe in democracy and the process and each other. I do think we’ve sent a message that treating our elected officials this way is not tolerable.”

Tom Morphet said the local acrimony mirrors a national divide. He also referred to a recent Alaska recall attempt in Homer.

“We’ve become more isolated and divided nationally, and I think that is reflected locally,” Morphet said.

Recall leader Don Turner Jr. has repeatedly refused to speak on tape with KHNS. But he did provide a short statement after the election results. Turner writes that he is disappointed and he hopes the assembly hears the 40 percent of voters who favored the recall.

Recall target Treshem Gregg said this outcome encourages him to try harder to make the changes he wants to see in Haines.

“Maybe now we’ve been given a second green light so we should actually step forward and try to put our best dreams and goals and visions in the forefront,” Gregg said.

The three recall survivors will be joined by three newly-elected assembly members this fall. Haines residents have until Aug. 21 to declare candidacy.

Morphet said he’s worried the recall will scare people away from running.

“I talked to a friend of mine who has previously run for office and he said ‘I’m done, I’m sick of the whole thing,’” Morphet said. “That doesn’t help us, that attitude. And as distasteful and uncomfortable as the recall has been, we have to redouble our efforts to put faith in our community and get past it.”

There is some evidence that Haines will be able to move on. Recall sponsor Turner released a joint statement with Margaret Friedenauer, who helped lead an anti-recall group.

The statement said “We may not agree but we still respect each other and our opinions. We hope all of us can do the same as we move on.”

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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