Opinions vary on creation of Dillingham borough
The fourth and final taskforce meeting looking into the feasibility of a borough for the Dillingham census area was held Thursday at the offices of the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA).
The task force meeting brought in around 20 representatives of the surrounding communities to discuss the study, which was authored by the McDowell group.
Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said she wanted to emphasis that this was a research project and the report was not binding.
"We have tried to be very careful both as a council and as individuals to clarify this is research, not a position on borough or no borough," she said. "This is not an exercise to force something on our neighbors again."
Arthur Sharp, representing the Twin Hills village council, raised several objections during the meeting, including one to block any discussion of future plans in relation to the borough.
Sharp said the borough idea has proven unpopular, unwanted, and ignored the will of the people.
"The group doesn't really want to listen to the real people who will be affected," Sharp said.
Manokotak Mayor Melvin Andrew echoed those sentiments. Andrew acknowledged that the study was simply that, a study, but said he felt in the end the people of Dillingham would win out because of its population advantage.
"Dillingham might be in support of it and some of the communities ties to Dillingham," Andrew said. "But I believe the majority will show that they are not in support of a borough. However, Dillingham has the most people, so that worries me."
Not everyone at the meeting felt the borough was a bad thing. Discussions ranged from collecting fish tax, improving education and creating one unified voice for the census area. Some representatives said that a borough could lead to greater efficiency, a stronger presence in Juneau and more effective opposition to unpopular projects such as Pebble and other mines.
Norm Van Vactor from the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (BBEDC) says a borough could streamline the bureaucracy and diversify economic opportunities for the region. The latter is something that be a smart move in today's political climate.
"We are so much stronger by being able to speak as one," Van Vactor said. "I spent some time in Juneau just last week and these cuts are really coming, folks, and it is going to get a whole lot worse."
This most recent study on a Dillingham census area borough got underway in October 2015 with a $120,000 grant from the American Native Administration. Matching funds from the city of Dillingham, Aleknagik and the BBNA brought the study's budget to just over $150,000. It was supposed to last a year but has been extended three times in the lead up to the final taskforce meeting.
Luki Alkelkok Sr. from Ewkok expressed disappointment at the length of the process and the lack of young people participating in the discussion. He said he wished a decision could have been made some time ago so the community could move forward.
"We need to get unified and a get a little more education and come and tend to a little bit of these important issues," Alkelkok said.
After the meeting, representatives from Aleknagik, Dillingham and Portage Creek said the day had been a good opportunity to clear the air and let everyone have a say.
Kay Andrews from the Southwest Region School District said he hoped the energy from the meeting doesn't die out.
"It needs to continue to breathe on and live on," Andrews said. "I would hate to see this just go on the shelf and collect dust."
The grant and taskforce meetings are now complete and a final report will be made public in the coming weeks. For now, the idea of a Dillingham census area borough remains just an idea. It will be up to individuals and the communities as to whether or not to proceed further.
It is possible the state boundary commission could try and impose the borough on the region, but that would be unlikely without the strong backing of the communities. Whether the local support will materialize remains to be seen.