Ketchikan council OKs review of SEAPA
A motion to join the City and Borough of Wrangell in studying the possibility of separating from the Southeast Alaska Power Agency drew heated debate among Ketchikan City Council members Thursday before gaining narrow approval.
The Council was considering whether to follow Wrangell’s lead and partner with that city and possibly Petersburg, the third member of SEAPA, in commissioning a study about SEAPA’s ongoing value to the three communities.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, people spoke both for and against the motion.
Jason Custer, a City of Saxman employee who also represents the public-private partnership seeking to build a hydroelectric dam on Mahoney Lake, favored the study, saying he agreed with everything City Manager Karl Amylon said in his report to the Council about the matter. Amylon said in the report, and reiterated in a Daily News interview Wednesday, that the time was appropriate to consider whether to remain a part of SEAPA. Custer said SEAPA’s existence hampered Ketchikan’s ability to pursue new energy projects, such as Mahoney Lake.
Andy Rauwolf, a former carpenter who worked on the Swan Lake dam construction, said he was “kind of disillusioned” by past comments by SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson, who Rauwolf thought was “trying to pick a fight.”
“I’m not too thrilled with SEAPA’s management,” he said. Rauwolf added that he was concerned for the safety of the Swan Lake dam should it be raised. City Mayor Lew Williams III and Council Member Dick Coose both encouraged Rauwolf to offer his expertise to the Council and SEAPA management going forward. Rauwolf said not many of the people who worked on Swan Lake were still around or living, and joked the city should take advantage of his knowledge while it can.
Acteson also spoke about the motion Thursday. He said there were many inaccuracies in public statements concerning SEAPA, and named Custer’s testimony as an example. Acteson said SEAPA was not just formed to help build the Swan-Tyee intertie, as former Rep. Kyle Johansen said at a previous Council meeting, but to serve ratepayers in all three member communities by bringing them the lowest possible rates. He pointed to the fact that Ketchikan has had some of the lowest and most stable electric rates in the state as an example of SEAPA fulfilling that mission.
Acteson said it would be important in the coming years for the three communities to speak with one voice, especially when going to Juneau for legislative support.
“A unified approach will prosper over isolationism,” he said.
Council Member Robert Sivertsen prompted Acteson also to mention that SEAPA recently has put out a request for offers on new energy projects, leading Acteson to describe Custer’s words as “not exactly factual.”
When it came to the actual vote, it almost didn’t happen.
Coose, who also sits on the SEAPA board, moved to defer discussion of the SEAPA study until the first Council meeting of July. He said it was important for the Council to understand how SEAPA works before voting. The deferral failed 3-4, with Council Members Marty West, Sivertsen and Coose voting yes. After the vote, Sivertsen spoke in defense of delaying a vote on whether to form a commission to study SEAPA. He said Council members needed to understand the “ramifications” of withdrawing from or dissolving SEAPA, such as facing escalating power costs when buying electricity from Wrangell.
Council Member Sam Bergeron said all those points would be brought up in the study. He urged other Council members not to view the Thursday vote as a referendum or attack on SEAPA.
West said she didn’t feel comfortable voting for a study without knowing its cost or any other details.
“I think there’s a whole lot of unknowns and unintended consequences that could come about with this,” she said.
Coose said the proposed study was an attack on SEAPA.
“I apologize to Sam, but I think this is a direct attempt to break up SEAPA,” he said. “This is an attack, Sam.” Coose also said that both Johansen’s prior comments and Custer’s comments Thursday weren’t backed up with facts.
Bergeron responded that the motion was “definitely not an attack on anything.” He said the possibility should be explored and that with SEAPA’s power sales agreement out of the way, the energy market would open up. He said he’d heard from SEAPA members that “burning a little diesel is not a bad thing.”
“This year, we’re burning a lot of diesel,” Bergeron said.
Williams said the study “might come up with some great ideas” but added that he understood Coose’s concerns.
Council Member Matt Olsen said he favored voting on the study and was particularly opposed to deferring a vote until July. With a December 2014 deadline to commission a study, Olsen said he’d prefer to give the city as much time as possible to review the matter.
Sivertsen said another concern he had was the makeup of the committee that would conduct the study. Amylon and Bergeron said nobody with a financial or political stake in SEAPA should be a part of it. Sivertsen said it was important for the people with the expertise to have a seat at the table. Coose said an impartial third party, such as an outside consultant, to negate any bias on the KPU or city side as well, should conduct the study.
The Council voted 4-3 to approve the study, with Coose, West and Sivertsen voting no. After Williams read the results into the record, Coose said he had wanted to change his vote to a “yes.”