10 candidates vie for 2 areawide seats on the Juneau Assembly

a collage of 10 profile photos
Paul Kelly, Ella Adkison, Nano Brooks, Laura Martinson McDonnell, Jeff Jones, Dorene Lorenz, Michele Stuart-Morgan, Emily Mesch, Ivan Nance and JoAnn Wallace are running for two areawide seats on the Juneau Assembly. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

In last year’s municipal election, three Juneau Assembly members ran unopposed for reelection. This year, 10 candidates are running for two areawide seats.

The areawide candidate who gets the most votes will serve a three-year term, and the one with the second-most votes will serve the remaining two years of former member Carole Triem’s term

As the Oct. 3 Election Day approaches, the candidates have been sharing their views on the city hall ballot measure, the economy and transparency in city government.

Split views on new city hall

The areawide candidates are split on whether to build a new city hall. Six are in favor of the ballot measure — which asks voters to fund a new city hall with a $27 million bond — and four oppose it.

Paul Kelly started campaigning early. He had a booth at the Maritime Festival in early May, and he says he’s knocked on more than 1,400 doors this summer. He said concerns about the measure came up early in his conversations with voters.

“So I went and toured the current city hall,” Kelly said. “I have pictures of bags hanging from the roof to contain leaks, carpet that is in disrepair — and it can’t be repaired because there would need to be asbestos remediation, which would have both financial and workflow consequences to the city.”

Kelly is an analyst and programmer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development who served on the Juneau school board from 2018 to 2021. 

While he had misgivings about the Assembly’s process — which included putting more money toward the project before this year’s vote — he thinks a new city hall is in taxpayers’ best interest.

Ella Adkison, a staffer for Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl, also supports the city hall ballot measure. 

“We have city employees in places that aren’t ideal for them to work and are taking up potential housing spaces for our community,” she said. “We either need to invest a lot of money in a city hall that’s old and really not working for us, or we spend that money on a better city hall that will be there forever and suit Juneauites’ needs.”

Laura Martinson McDonnellEmily MeschIvan Nance and Michele Stuart-Morgan also support it. 

Other candidates oppose the bond proposal, including JoAnn WallaceJeff JonesNano Brooks and Dorene Lorenz.

“I feel like no should be no for now,” said Wallace, a realtor who’s concerned about the high cost of living in Juneau. “We’re going to have a lot of commercial space opening up in our town in the next year or two that could also be good options.”

Jones is an account executive for a construction company. He’s also on the executive board of the Plumbers & Pipefitters Union. In an interview, he said the city should prioritize funding other construction projects instead of a new city hall.

“We know what kind of shape the school district and the hospital are in,” he said. “They need to be fixed before we build a new city hall.”

Brooks, an HVAC and plumbing technician and small business owner, agrees that there are other projects the city could focus on instead. If a new city hall does get built, he said in an interview, keeping up with repairs will be important.

“I’m not a fan of any position where the city is losing money, but before any new building goes up, we need to address the processes and systems that got the current facility into $15 million in deferred maintenance,” he said.

Local advocacy group Save Juneau — which opposes the city hall bond and property tax increases — endorsed Wallace and Brooks for the areawide race.

Juneau Assembly candidates Laura Martinson McDonnell and Nano Brooks at a forum hosted by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Support for education and economy

Martinson McDonnell, a small business owner and president-elect of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, is focusing on the local economy. In an interview, Martinson McDonnell said she would bring a new perspective to the Assembly.

“I’m a small business owner, and I’ve been born and raised in Juneau. I’ve got a small child here,” she said. “I think it’s important to mix up the perspectives and bring a little bit of a different view on board.”

Kelly and Adkison say child care availability and a strong education system can foster a strong economy by attracting business owners and employees. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development has challenged some of the city’s financial support of the school district.

“We’ve had some attacks on our ability to fund our education system by the current administration, and it’s really important that we educate our kids,” Adkison said. “People aren’t going to start up new businesses in a place that doesn’t have a good education system.”

Lorenz, a communications consultant, said growing the local workforce could help reduce the burden of tourism on residents.

“We need more excursions, but we can’t have more excursions unless we have people to work to make those excursions go,” she said.

Housing a top concern for some

As city leaders expand subsidies for residents wanting to build accessory dwelling units, consider regulating short-term rentals and search for someone to run the emergency cold weather shelter this winter, housing is a top concern for several candidates.

In interviews and at forums, Brooks has said the city could raffle off one-acre plots to generate revenue and get more land in the hands of residents who might want to build their own homes.

Michele Stuart-Morgan, a medical assistant who started Juneau Stop Heroin Start Talking, said homeowners, landlords and tenants are all dealing with higher costs.

“I own a home and I also own a rental, and I know on both sides of that that our taxes have gone up,” she said in an interview. “I know what it costs to maintain a rental – the utilities and all those things. I also have my two sons who don’t own a home yet, and I see their struggles.”

Emily Mesch, president of Southeast Alaska LGBTQ+ Alliance, said building more housing could help address staff shortages for Juneau employers. She’s worked for the state, the city and the Shéiyi X̱aat Hít Youth Shelter.

“We have, across the board, staffing issues, both within the city and in private industry,” Mesch said. “We need to have more, better-trained people living in Juneau in our workforce.”

Calls for transparency and efficiency

Some candidates say they would work to make the Assembly more transparent and efficient.

“I think a lot of discussion that should be going on in public isn’t,” Lorenz said in an interview. “If you don’t have faith and confidence in the process, you’re not going to have faith and confidence in your government.”

Lorenz is a member of the city’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee and a former member of the Seward City Council. 

In 2018, Alaska Public Media reported that the state stopped funding a nonprofit Lorenz chaired because of “reporting issues and accountability issues.” The nonprofit, Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, had plans to restore the former children’s home where Benny Benson designed the state flag and turn it into a residential charter school. The City of Seward used the remaining $1 million of the nonprofit’s state funding to demolish the building in 2021.

In an interview, Lorenz said Gov. Bill Walker’s administration questioned expenses that had already been approved by officials from prior administrations. She said the group’s federal funding required the school to be up and running as soon as construction was complete, and that many of the expenses state officials questioned had been part of developing the curriculum.

Juneau Assembly candidate Dorene Lorenz at a forum hosted by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Ivan Nance is a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard and was mayor of Prairie City, Oregon, from 1998 to 2000. In an interview, he said he wants to make the Assembly “as productive and efficient city government as it can be.” 

Nance is on the city’s Systemic Racism Review Committee. At a forum hosted by Tlingit and Haida, he spoke about opportunities for Alaska Native people to get involved in Juneau’s city government.

In 1996, Nance pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge. In an interview, he said it was a mistake that happened a long time ago.

Who is contributing to their campaigns?

City leaders, labor unions, business owners and other Juneau residents have donated to several of the areawide candidates. 

Martinson McDonnell has raised more money than any municipal candidate this year. She’s reported raising more than $41,000 and spent more than $33,000. Several local business owners have donated to her, along with Mayor Beth Weldon, Bartlett Regional Hospital Board President Kenny Solomon-Gross, Huna Totem President and CEO Russell Dick and Goldbelt President and CEO McHugh Pierre. 

Pierre has also donated to Save Juneau. Save Juneau has reported raising more than $13,000 and spending more than $8,000 on radio ads, yard signs and mailers.

Kelly has reported raising more than $18,000 and spending more than $17,000. Donors include school board president Deedie Sorensen, Juneau Economic Development Council Executive Director and former school board member Brian Holst, Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan and Sen. Jesse Kiehl, Anchorage Sen. Forrest Dunbar and former Anchorage Rep. Les Gara.

Adkison has raised more than $15,000 and spent nearly $13,000. Her donors include Kiehl, Assembly member Greg Smith, AWARE Executive Director Saralyn Tabachnick and several fellow legislative aides.

Lorenz has raised more than $11,000 and spent more than $9,000. Donors include Acting Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Cathy Muñoz, Juneau Hydropower CEO Keith Comstock and Irene Gallion, a senior planner for the city.

Wallace has raised more than $5,000. Her donors include Mayor Beth Weldon, local business owners and Maria Uchytil, executive director of the Bartlett Regional Hospital Foundation.

Jones has reported raising $1,000 from the Juneau Central Labor Council and the Plumbers and Pipefitters union.

Unions have also donated to Martinson McDonnell, Kelly and Lorenz.

The Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition reported $100 donations to Adkison, Kelly, Martinson McDonnell, Mesch, Nance and Stuart-Morgan.

Municipal candidates only have to disclose campaign finances through the Alaska Public Offices Commission if they intend to raise or spend more than $5,000. Brooks, Mesch, Nance and Stuart-Morgan have not reported any campaign fundraising or spending. 

Election Day is Oct. 3.

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