The seven candidates for Seward City Council and two candidates for mayor faced off Wednesday evening in the annual pre-election Meet the Candidates Night sponsored by the Seward Chamber of Commerce.
The discussion frequently gravitated toward a few hot topics, including crime, housing, utilities and the fate of Seward’s airport. The debate, moderated by David Kingsland, saw the seven council candidates answer a series of questions, before turning the dais over to the mayoral candidates.
All nine of Wednesday’s participants stand for election in Seward’s Oct. 1 municipal election. However, they are competing in three separate races.
Five candidates will contend for two seats on the council, each with three-year terms. Incumbents Jeremy Horn and Suzi Towsley are being challenged by Tony Baclaan, Dale Butts, and Wolf Kurtz. The two with the largest number of votes will both be seated on council. Incumbent Sue McClure is being challenged by Brad Snowden for a single one-year term.
The difference in term lengths is the result of a ballot measure from 2017 that extended council terms to three years. The single-year term ensures that future terms will end at appropriately staggered times, allowing for the election of two council members each year.
The mayor’s race is a one-on-one contest between incumbent Mayor David Squires and former council member Christy Terry, who currently serves as the chairperson for the Port and Commerce Advisory Board.
Christy, Squires exchange visions for Seward
Moderator Kingsland questioned the mayoral candidates on broad topics, such as their visions for Seward, and narrow specifics, such as how much oversight the City Council should have over the Seward Community Health Center.
Squires said that his vision for the city is to hearken back to its historic roots as the “Gateway to Alaska.”
“For me, business has to be developed into a year-round economy,” he said. “Education is a big priority. If we don’t have our kids educated we’re not going to go anywhere.”
Squires also hit on Seward’s marine potential.
“The other thing is port development. Working with the Alaska Railroad, we need to make sure that they’re on track with their freight dock expansion,” he said. “I would like to see us expand and take some business away from Anchorage.”
Christy too put economic development in the forefront, adding that she would like to see Seward invest in alternative energy, an aim shared by incumbent council members Jeremy Horn and Suzi Towsley.
“I see us as a community where if you want to be successful, you can move here and be successful,” she said, “where there’s not barriers to economic development.”
But she added that “my ego is not so large that I think my vision is the only vision. I think that people on this dais need to listen to constituents.”
The only specific policy question addressed to the two candidates concerned the city’s relationship with the Seward Community Health Center, a clinic housed in a city-owned structure that receives over a $1 million in federal funds through the health center program.
“If the city continues to subsidize the Community Health Center … what kind of oversight should council and residents have?” Kingsland asked.
Both Terry and Squires emphasized the health center’s positive impact on health care in Seward, sometimes in nearly identical terms. Both referred to the agency as a “benefit to the community.”
Christy did say that she would like to see the health center “fully divested,” that is, not receiving any budgetary assistance from the city. That outcome is already projected for 2021 under an arrangement in which the health center has received gradually decreasing funds in recent years.
“We all benefit from healthcare in this community,” Christy said. “We have to make a decision. Do we want healthcare so that people come here? Or do we want to be like, ‘It’s two hours to Anchorage. Good luck.’”
Squires largely agreed with Terry, but also drew attention to disputed portions of the co-applicant agreement between the city and the health center, which has drawn attention from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees the health center program.
“We do have some issues right now with the federal government with how they interpret our agreement,” Squires said. “We need to look at how the rules have changed over the years.”
Candidates support housing development
The candidates for the remaining seats on the council also faced principally broad questions on economic development. However, they each responded to a specific question about expanding the supply of housing in Seward, an aim in which all but one saw a role for city government.
Many of the candidate’s answered questions about economic development by referring to the housing issue.
Of the seven candidates, only Brad Snowden seemed to oppose much intervention by the city other than selling city-owned land to make more plots available for development and specifically referred to land owned by the city across the bay. The remaining candidates all seemed to endorse a more active role.
Tony Baclaan endorsed the measures taken by the current council to partially reimburse developers for the cost of extending public utilities, as did incumbent council members Sue McClure and Suzi Towsley.
Wolf Kurtz focused on the matter of expanding the inventory of lots, but sounded somewhat more cautionary regarding subsidizing development
“Government has always played a role in opening up opportunity for expansion, and I think that’s a role that the City of Seward could serve,” Kurtz said. “I think we need to be as a community careful about, or consider asking for something back from, any subsidies that are provided to developers.”
Dale Butts likewise cautiously endorsed measures to “help developers be able to develop land,” but he also responded to comments made at various times before the council suggesting that the city regulate the price or use of new properties.
“We can’t stop a homeowner from just renting their house in the summer,” He said. “I wish we could. … Maybe there’s an incentive we can offer to make those properties available year-round.”
Some criticize inefficiency
The evening saw few out-and-out disagreements among the candidates – although several candidates made a point to call for more efficient meetings, an apparent criticism of the current practice of the council, which has been known to sometimes chase two-hour work sessions with four-hour meetings.
Mayoral challenger Christy Terry made this a central element of her platform. When asked about her priorities for the City Council, she put efficiency at the top.
“At the risk of sounding glib: We need to get our Monday night meetings back on track,” she said, echoing remarks from her opening statement in which she committed to “keeping meetings on task with action items.”
The debate over the efficiency of the council’s meetings is an implicit rebuke of Mayor David Squires, who defended his shepherding of the city’s business.
“I do want to make sure that the council moves on a good basis, but I want to make sure that each council member is heard, whether I agree with them or disagree with them,” Squires said. “That’s why [meetings] go a bit longer than I would really like.”
Concerns about efficiency and council involving itself too deeply in administrative detail also surfaced during the portion of the night devoted to the seven other council candidates. Dale Butts and Wolf Kurtz both spoke to the issue at various points.
“I think that as of lately we’ve gotten mired down in kind of administrative and clerical issues,” Butts said during his opening statement. “But I do realize that sometimes in order to fix the house you’ve got to fix the foundation first.”
Kurtz broached the topic in his closing remarks.
“For the upcoming council, I have some expectations, whether or not I get elected,” He said. “To respect my time and that of others. I expect regular meetings to be conducted with concision. Personal irritations should be left at the door. Robert’s Rules should be observed and enforced. … Voters expect an outstanding council that performs professionally to the credit of the community.”
Correction: This article has been edited to correctly say that Sue McClure is running for a one-year seat, not a three-year seat as it originally stated.