Council wants more diverse applicants for public safety commission
The seating of commissioners to the Public Safety Commission, created by ordinance in mid-May of this year, hit two snags in Monday’s Common Council meeting and opened up a call to the public again for interested persons to throw their hats in the ring to serve on the commission.
One snag had to do with the racial makeup of the commission and the other with background checks that yet have to be done.
Although appointing and seating the commission was not on the meeting agenda, the discussion came about during councilmember/mayor comments toward the end of the meeting. With Mayor Richard Beneville absent, Councilman Jerald Brown acted as mayor and was charged by Mayor Beneville to go ahead and appoint the commission so that the council can confirm the commissioners. Brown said he had talked with Beneville earlier on the phone and said the mayor expressed his frustration that takes so long to get this commission up and running. What he didn’t know was that Beneville later talked with acting City Manager John Handeland, and they had a conversation dealing with the background checks. Brown had a pool of nine eligible applicants for as many seats in front of him and he appointed Keith Morrison, Lisa Ellanna, Moe Koezuna to three-year seats; Miranda Musich, Traci McGarry and Carol Piscoya to two year seats; and Greg Smith, Jana Hoggan and Shantel Bruner-Alvanna to one-year seats. One applicant was disqualified due to not being a registered voter in Nome. Brown also pointed out that it comes as a minor violation to its own rules that the commission is appointed before the background checks are complete. “But by the time the commission sits, the background checks will be completed,” he said. Councilwoman Meghan Topkok, a lawyer by trade and having done exhaustive work on the ordinance, asked if the mayor could also appoint persons who have not applied for the seats. Brown said , yes, it could be done – that’s how he first became a councilmember – but it could be entering “dangerous territory” if qualified applicants are dismissed and others are appointed by short-cutting the process.
Councilwoman Reader than moved to approve the appointment of the names, with Topkok seconding. But Councilman Doug Johnson objected that the council is not following the rules by not having the background checks done first. Topkok grew displeased and said that it’s been taking already too long. “I would argue that we are not prioritizing right,” she said. Reader then had second thoughts about the makeup of the commission as it was not meeting the objective stated in the ordinance that the commission shall attempt to be composed to reflect the cultural, racial and gender makeup of the community. As the commission stood, seven of the applicants identify as Caucasian, only two identifying as Alaska Native.
Lisa Ellanna, a driving force to demand justice for victims and an advocate for the commission, stepped up to podium during public comments and said that she also wants to see this move along more swiftly and that there have been obstacles after obstacles thrown in the way of creating and finally seating this commission in a timely manner. Acting City Manager John Handeland had said earlier that he stepped in when Mayor Beneville charged NPD with the background checks but he felt that it was not a proper way to go about it. “In trying to move the process along, the Mayor with only good intention and perhaps not fully understanding the systems, originally bypassed me, going directly to the police department,” Handeland stated in a follow-up email to the Nugget. This created a delay. Handeland confirmed it would be an inappropriate use of the criminal information system resources for background/criminal checks not related to law enforcement purposes to be run and he determined it more appropriate to utilize the standard process with an outside entity. Handeland proposed to use Russell Consulting to conduct the checks and that it’s the same person the City routinely uses to conduct background/criminal history checks for candidates for police department personnel and now for candidates on the short list for city manager.
Asked if the process is more stringent than for other city jobs or commissions Handeland said, no, the process is no more or less stringent than the process used for hiring police officers and other key personnel in the City, but that getting the information gathered and reports written and returned does not happen overnight. “Historically I have seen it taking 30-45 days. We are requesting our packet be moved up on the list, and hopefully the nine we are initially submitting can be prioritized for more expedited turnaround,” Handeland said.
In the end, Brown withdrew the nominations, and instructed City Clerk Bryant Hammond to launch an “advertising blitz” with ads in the newspaper, on the radio, on social media and Nome Announce to solicit more letters of intent from people to serve on the commission over the next two weeks. “The intent is to get a better representation of Nome in this commission,” Brown said. Applications for commissions are not subject to closing deadlines, but can be rolling, meaning at any time people can submit their interest to serve on any of the city’s commissions.
The Public Safety Commission was created as a result of steady pressure from victim advocates alleging inaction on part of the Nome Police Dept. when it came to investigating sexual assaults in Nome. The commission is advisory in nature and has five stated purposes: to advise the city council on matters relating to public safety and health; to promote and foster communication between the public and police; to encourage the highest ethical standards in the public safety department; to promote the provision of quality law enforcement services to all residents with sensitivity, cultural understanding and racial equity; and to provide an alternative method for accepting citizen concerns relating to officer conduct or suggestions for changes in public safety department practices.
Brown expected the issue to be taken up again in the next council meeting in two weeks.
In other business, the council took action on adjusting taxes to senior citizens. In reviewing a foreclosure list, Handeland recommended that the Council write off property taxes of several seniors who have been eligible but paperwork has not been received. “I do not believe the city wants to take a senior’s home based on missed paperwork, when their status as an elder is personally know,” he wrote. The Council, with Councilman Brown abstaining due to conflict of interest for family ties, voted to forgive those outstanding taxes. In a separate vote, the Council voted on reverting to the 2018 property tax assessment for Colby Engstrom’s building, the former Twin Dragon. Rather than have courts settle the dispute, city management proposed to revert to the lower tax rate as the building has not been fully remodeled yet and Engstrom alleged that the assessor valued his building as a complete remodel when in fact work had barely begun.
An “Amazon” ordinance went into first reading. The ordinance to amend the Nome code clarifying remote sellers and marketplace facilitator’s obligation to collect and remit sales tax to the city aims to level the playing field between out of town and town retailers by collecting sales tax and to distinguish between primary sellers (some items on Amazon are shipped and sold by the online retailer) and third parties who use Amazon to sell their goods. City Clerk Bryant Hammond explained that the ordinance would allow the City to capture sales taxes from Amazon but not third-party sellers that are operating in the Amazon or any other digital marketplace. The ordinance goes into second reading Aug. 26 and John Handeland expressed hope that citizens come forward and testify.
The Council also recognized Ethan Ahkvaluk for receiving a special recognition from Alaska Communications Systems and the Boys and Girls Club. (see related story)
Council also heard comments from the public. “What the heck is going on with our town?” asked Trinh Johnson. She said during a recent trip out of town, her place was robbed, guns stolen and NPD alleged that it was her own son, which she categorically denied. She asked for an apology from the investigating police officer for the accusations and said she had to do her own investigation and present the investigator with a suspect to arrest. Casting her net wider, she lodged her complaint against police for not patrolling the streets enough. When out to help search for the supposedly adducted girl, she said, she saw kids no older than 7 or 8-years-old roaming the streets at 3 o’clock in the morning and no cop far and wide. “I don’t know what the cops are doing, what they’re investigating with three investigators up there, but they don’t show up downtown and check on people,” she said. She called for a ‘redo’ of the police department including a different chief and the hire of officers and investigators who are familiar with this area.
KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter asked about the status of a animal control officer – the position became vacant when Dawn Ubelaker resigned and moved from town earlier this summer. Handeland answered that he is talking with people to take over animal services.
Acting City Manager Handeland reported that a recent false report of an abduction is now investigated by the Alaska State Troopers. He said it gave the city a good opportunity to test the emergency responses. He reported that investigator Bob Pruckner has resigned from NPD and that officer Gray Harrison is now the senior officer at NPD who will be stepping into the role of investigator.
Also, longtime finance director Julie Liew has resigned as she and her husband, former NPD Chief John Papasodora, are leaving Nome.
City planner Monica Faix, who was contracted on a 20-hour per month basis to assist the city with planning issues and the Historic Preservation Plan, is taking on a project in New York and won’t be available to the city beyond October.
Handeland also mentioned that Senator Lisa Murkowski is planning to visit Nome and other villages in the region next weekend.
Port Director Joy Baker briefed the council that repairs to the middle dock have been affected by adverse weather, but are coming along well. She expects the repair to be done by August 25.
In another round of citizen comments, Nome Community Center Director Rhonda Schneider made the formal request to the council to reconsider their decision to cut funding to the tune of $20,000 for the NEST shelter.
Councilwoman Meghan Topkok made the motion to provide for funding for NEST in the amount of $25,000. The motion failed.
Councilmembers Jerald Brown and Meghan Topkok attended a recent conference on countering racism. Brown commented that he found it very eye opening and Topkok expressed hope that more councilmembers would attend such workshops. She announced that a high-level roundtable discussion will take place next Monday. The U.S. Department of the Interior will be in Nome holding a “Reclaiming Our Native Communities round table, discussing a comprehensive approach to concentrate on cold cases, violent crimes, and missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The public part of the meeting ended when Brown called an executive session to discuss personnel matters. He said he does not expect the council to take any action after the executive session.