Recall election will determine Whittier Mayor’s fate
By Ken Smith
A special municipal election will be held in Whittier, Tuesday, July 23, with a proposition to recall council member Lester Lunceford (Seat F), who is also the mayor of the city. The recall election was initiated by three former Whittier city councilors: Peter Denmark, Dave Goldstein, and Shawni Phillips.
Ethics complaints were also filed against the mayor and three other councilors: Becky Cotner, Mary Brenneman and Larry Bussman. An ethics board made up of two citizens and councilman Dave Pinquoch reviewed the complaints. At a city council meeting Tuesday, June 18, the ethics board determined that Cotner, Brenneman and Lunceford committed ethics violations, but Bussman did not. However, the council as a whole was unable to cast a majority vote to act on the board’s recommendations, rendering the advisory action of the ethics board moot.
“At that point, out of mercy, it was clear that this process was going to end in a three-three tie,” said Whittier City Manager Tom Bolen, who took over in March, “and in light of the fact that out of the four people that were charged with violations, one had been exonerated, out of the three remaining councilors, the mayor was up for a recall and the other two (Cotner and Brenneman) are up for reelection in the fall. I said that I would recommend that the council set aside the entire ethics matter and just walk away from it because they were not going to produce the necessary results, and that, in the end, the public would have a say in regard to the conduct of the council members through an election.”
The city council unanimously approved Bolen’s recommendation.
The Turnagain Times called Mayor Lester Lunceford for a response. He did not answer the initial call, but left a message later in the night to express his interest to respond. He followed with an email stating his position on both the ethics complaints and recall election. As to the ethics compaints, he wrote, “As you know, my stand was, and still is, that ‘I’, nor any of the other 3 councilors accused of ethics violations, did anything wrong. Even though Whittier’s city attorney advised members of the ethics board that no one violated any ethics, and even after a second opinion from an outside attorney chosen by the ethics board stated the same, the chair of the ethics board (Councilor Dave Pinquoch) who admitted to being biased, found the majority of the council guilty.
“As you also know, the ethics board is an advisor board who brings their recommendation to the city council who makes a final ruling. It was that meeting that a lot of discussion ensued about who can or cannot vote on the ethics board recommendations. When all was said and done, it was clear that it was impossible to have 4 votes to either pass or fail the recommendations. Therefore, Councilor Pete Heddell made a motion to declare the council deadlocked, and that the council will let the recall election process handle the final disposition of the ethics boards recommendation, the motion was seconded, and it passed unanimously by the council.”
In regard to the recall election, a public press release was provided by Denmark, Goldstein and Phillips. In the release they stated that they believe two violations were committed by Mayor Lunceford and are the basis for the recall election: “The legal basis for the recall election is for violations of the Open Meetings Act, Alaska State Statutes 44.62.310 & 312. An illegal Executive Session was conducted on January 15, 2013. The results of this meeting, convened to address ‘Financial matters that may have a negative impact on The City of Whittier’, were: 1. Discussion of personnel matters without notifying affected personnel, resulting in attacks on the character of the City employees in question. (Violation of State law.). Conducting an Executive Session with ‘erroneous specificity’ (Violation of State Law).”
Lunceford responded to the recall election and the alleged violations in his email to the Turnagain Times, in which he wrote, “I am comfortable stating that the open meetings act was NOT violated. This meeting was a regularly scheduled, publicly posted meeting. The executive session was specifically announced and allowed based on ‘financial interests’. The precedent has been set for many years as one of the acceptable reasons to allow and enter into an executive session. On January 15th the council recessed into executive session to discuss concerns over checks written for repairs to a council members’ vehicle that was damaged as a result of a hit and run accident caused by the former interim city manager in which an open container was found.
“This executive session highlighted serious concerns regarding management of city financial interests and liability. Looking out for your tax dollars does not make me incompetent or guilty of misconduct and does not warrant recall because a few individuals in the community disagreeing.”
The Turnagain Times also contacted the sponsor of the recall election, Peter Denmark (the co-sponsor is David Goldstein). “The point is that to my eye and many others who have joined the ethics complaints and recall efforts that there’s an obvious lack of transparency in our local government under Mayor Lunceford’s leadership,” said Denmark. “A collective opinion is hard to gauge, but I am hopeful that we can replace the leadership of the city council and put Whittier on a goal-oriented path. This is now in the hands of the people, and we hope they will vote to forward their opinions.”
The voting polls will be at the Cullum Room on the first floor in the Begich Towers, and the polls will be open Tuesday, July 23, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots can be cast until July 22, one day prior to the special election.