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Tempers flare, charges fly in Whittier over effort to recall mayor

Eli Martin
The Begich Towers in Whittier, where the City Council postponed until next month a vote on its ethics committee's recommendation that the mayor of the small Alaska town resign. Photo by Eli Martin

WHITTIER -- Tempers flared at Tuesday night’s city council meeting in this small and isolated community on Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where the town’s ethics committee laid out allegations of misconduct against longtime mayor Lester Lunceford.

As reported last week, Lunceford is subject to a public recall vote that will take place July 23 in the city of 220 residents.

The ethics committee report centered on the controversial hiring and firing of the city manager earlier this year. Between January and March, Tom Bolen replaced former city manager Robert Prunella.

'Conspiracy'? 

The ethics committee, chaired by council member David Pinquoch, alluded to Lunceford’s alleged effort to dismiss Prunella because the latter was involved in a “conspiracy to get rid of him.” The committee found that Lunceford and two other council members -- Mary Brennerman and Becky Cotner -- committed violations in the process of replacing the city manager. It recommended that Lunceford resign because he was motivated by personal interest to dismiss the old city manager, and that Brennerman and Cotner were complicit in this conflict of interest.

Lunceford said later that the council had discovered irregularities committed by Prunella, vaguely centered reports of a payment involving a hit-and-run car accident.

In the end, the council decided to postpone its vote on ethics committee recommendations until July 2.

“You’ve been serving for a long time,” one testifying attendee, Chris Pallister, a boat owner in Whittier’s harbor, said to the mayor. “I don’t know what drives your interest in serving, and I thank you for that. But there has been a hell of a lot of conflict in this town that gets nastier all the time.”

After the council postponed the vote, Peter Denmark, an organizer of the recall petition was exasperated. “The city of Whittier is being railroaded by a mayor who works for the railroad,” Denmark said. He said that city residents were victims of a continuing series of “manipulations and half-truths” that Lunceford used to keep his job.

This came after the council’s discussion of the ethics report turned into what Shannon Tolman dubbed a “back-and-forth tit-for-tat over who can vote,” as successive council members accused each other of progressively more complicated conflicts of interest. Denmark labeled the process a “sham.” Replied Lunceford: “This whole ethics investigation is a sham.”

Council members and onlookers turned repeatedly to Brooks Chandler, a lawyer hired by the city, for direction on the Whittier’s municipal code, which was frequently referred to as “vague and conflicting.”

'You are still crooked'

Tolman, a former council member who was himself the subject of an ethics committee investigation chaired by Lunceford, told those near him, “Usually you have to pay for this kind of entertainment.” Moments later, Tolman stormed out of the meeting, but not before declaring, “You can say and do what you want here, but in the end these guys are going to walk, and Lester especially, you are still crooked.”

Lunceford claimed he and others were not given adequate notice of an ethics committee meeting to discuss their alleged violations. Lack of adequate notice, it seems, is a common point of contention in the feud that appears to be dominating Whittier politics in the run-up to the July 23 recall vote.

When Lunceford complained he was not informed about the ethics’ meeting before it took place, he asked -- after a dispute over whether he received a voicemail informing him -- why it was so hard to tell him in person about the meeting.

Monty Irvin, in the audience, responded, “Especially when you don’t live here,” to which Lunceford retorted with a smile, “I’m here a lot more than you are.”

Lunceford said allegations that he has a conflict of interest were baseless, and argued that he has worked as a public servant his entire career -- first as a police officer and since then as mayor. He mentioned his other role as chairman of the Alaska Human Rights Commission, and pointed out that he has now been appointed and retained in that role by three separate governors.

Just 'stirring the pot'? 

Asked why a faction in town was determined to oust him, Lunceford said that he had consistently opposed efforts by various individuals to use seats on the council for personal gain. He added that some of those plotting against him were “bullies,” who coerced or persuaded citizens into signing the recall petition. “When you’re elected to public office and serve the public,” he said, “you just don’t give up.”

It’s a similar line to that adopted by Lunceford’s opponents, including Cole Haddock, who is working in Whittier for the third summer in a row and claims his application for city manager was received and ignored by Lunceford. Haddock said he was determined to see “justice” in Whittier.

Not all the town’s residents were either determined to see Lunceford leave, or convinced that various allegations of ethical violations were the city’s most important issues.

June Miller, owner of a bed and breakfast that rents out condos in the Begich Towers -- where tourists can experience life as an average resident of Whittier for one night -- said the town had more pressing problems. She said the recall petition amounted to little more than “stirring the pot.”

“We’ve come a long way in Whittier over the past 20 years, but there is a lot more that we need to get done.” The current squabbling over the hiring and firing of the city manager was a distraction.

“We have to make Whittier beautiful,” she said, pointing to “our million-dollar view,” and then to the spread of abandoned, trash-filled trucks, boats and a reindeer pen that sit beneath Begich Towers. Most of Whittier’s full-time inhabitants live in the building.

In addition to the ethics’ committee controversy, Tuesday night’s council meeting also considered:

• Stopping a leak in the building that houses the city council chambers.  

• Building a security fence around the long-abandoned Buckner Building, a World War II-era military outpost, which Bolen argued was a “very significant liability” for the city.

But until the current paralysis that appears to be dominating politics in Whittier is resolved, it’s difficult to see how more fundamental problems -- including funding, planning and repair work -- will be addressed.

Ultimately, Whittier may be proof that no matter how small or how remote you go in Alaska, there may no escaping backroom intrigue and the trappings of bureaucracy.

Contact Eli Martin at eli(at)alaskadispatch.com