Whittier Mayor, Vice-Mayor Look Forward
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The City of Whittier’s general election in early October featured three city council seats for a three-year term. Dave Dickason and Debra Hicks retained their seats while Thomas Wagner defeated incumbent Mayor Daniel Blair, who had served in the position for six years.
Whittier operates as a second class city with seven city council members elected by voters. The council chooses the Vice-Mayor and Mayor from among its members. The positions carry no more power than other council seats, and a City Manager, also chosen by council, administrates.
The Gazette interviewed Dickason and Vice-Mayor Peter Denmark to learn about their goals and the issues facing Whittier. The council unanimously chose Dickason, as Mayor after he had finished his first three-year term.
“I’m surprised it happened,” Dickason said. “It wasn’t something I expected. It’s an exciting challenge.” He also understands the downsides of the job, saying, “It’s a thankless job. You’ve got a target on your back. There’s no pay.”
As mayor, Dickason is responsible for knowing the city’s issues, running meetings and following up to make sure the administration and council live up to their commitments. Dickason says economic development is one topic he is focused on. He sees different opportunities for businesses and industry while maintaining what makes Whittier unique.
“Being in a small community,” Dickason said, “we don’t have a large tax base. The result is we won’t have a lot of revenue to work with. That will always be a challenge for us, which is why we need to explore ways to grow the economy. We want to find ways to grow our economy, but we don’t want to ruin the culture and the character of the place. It’s a balancing act.”
Dickason cited future construction extending Shotgun Cove Road as an important project that will benefit the city economically and increase opportunities for recreational activities. The project’s next stage starts in 2021. It will give access to city property open for development, but utilities are not part of the project.
With Dickason’s council experience, his perspective takes a long view when making important decisions, particularly those that will have an effect in the future. He says he enjoys the challenge.
“For me, it’s solving these puzzles,” Dickason said. “I get enjoyment figuring out as each problem, as each task comes up, finding ways to solve those problems so as many people benefit as possible. I try to imagine what the future could be like. I’ve got a daughter, and I always try to imagine what it will be like for her when she gets older to try to create a place that would be safe and secure.”
Dickason indicated Whittier’s relationship with Girdwood is more than a police contract, though it is an important part. Whittier’s residents dine, recreate, shop and work in Girdwood, and some of the latter’s residents work in Whittier. He appreciates the cooperation and says it’s important to find ways to keep working together and helping each other.
“I really appreciate the relationship we have with Girdwood,” Dickason said. “It’s important. The police contract has helped us out a lot. We’re an experienced police force we didn’t have before. They learn a lot being exposed to Girdwood, and they enjoy their jobs more. We’re really proud it has worked out as well as it has and the way Girdwood has worked with us to make it successful.”
Vice-Mayor Denmark is entering his second year in the position and has served as a council member on and off for about 14 years as a Counselor at Large. As vice-mayor, Denmark has a reporting spot early on the meeting agenda and leads meetings if the mayor is unable. However, he said he has always vigorously avoided the mayor’s chair.
“The commitment it takes to do the job well is significant,” Denmark said. “It requires a passion in a volunteer position and a time commitment that I am somewhere between unable and unwilling to make.”
Denmark’s tenure on council has given him insight into the problems Whittier has experienced for decades and what needs to change. He is candid about his priorities to improve the city.
“My personal areas of focus have been the same for a couple of years in perceiving systemic issues in a city manager form of government,” Denmark said. “I have been pressing for the city to develop administrative policies to overlay all the departments of the city. The City of Whittier is operating without any written policies, and our only rule book is Whittier Municipal Code, which is antiquated and conflicting in many ways. I’ve always felt that the development of policy would allow for some consistency in administration and operations that we have not experienced over the decades.”
Whittier is in the process of completing a comprehensive plan for 2020 with a public review period of the draft ending December 15. A comprehensive plan is a mandatory five-year document used to secure grants and other funding by identifying the city’s priorities. Denmark asserts the plan contains inherent contradictions needing resolution, such as heavy industry working side by side to a community dedicated toward tourism.
“Whittier is a land of paradox and anomaly,” Denmark said. “If you look at our comprehensive plan, 58 percent of our land uses are devoted to industry, specifically the railroad and associated subservient industries. Only 10 percent of available land in Whittier is residential, and our comprehensive plan is firmly targeted on tourism and recreation, so there is a paradox right there to resolve.”
Denmark proposes creating a master development plan for the city to guide future growth beyond what the comprehensive plan allows. He said numerous user groups are suffering from seasonal overcrowding in Whittier, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed for future needs and usages for limited real estate plats. He sees the city as a blank canvas and hopes the council can incorporate some planned development to determine what the city will look like in five, 10 and maybe 50 years.
“Our short-term challenge is trying to quickly develop short-term infrastructure to manage what amounts to overcrowding in the summertime,” Denmark said. “There was a Saturday this year when somebody was talking about closing the tunnel because there was nowhere to park a car in Whittier. They were blocking the roads. At this point in time, on a seasonal basis, the infrastructure supply is exceeded by demand. It amounts to parking.”
“The Master Lease is a long-term challenge,” Denmark continued. “The City of Whittier is essentially a tenant of the Alaska Railroad on most of the acreage of the Whittier Moraine, so we’re a subtenant, so the business owners are a subtenant of the railroad via the city. The city doesn’t own most of the land around here. They have a long-term lease with the railroad, and we have to pay them 40 percent of lease and rent revenues as a function of the Master Lease.”
The Master Lease is for 99 years and was developed around the late 1980s as a way to resolve issues between the city and the Alaska Railroad. Denmark asserts the deal has a number of flaws that have been revealed over time.
“It was developed as an 11th-hour settlement by Bill Sheffield, the governor at the time, and our City Manager Terry Williams as the legislature have given the railroad a big push to decide what the hell to do in Whittier. The Master Lease was the idea that came forward. It is my stance, that the 20 or whatever years the Master Lease has been in effect, it is a failed experiment in the state’s management of the Whittier City Charter. The city, I feel, should work to separate itself from the Master Lease.”