There are only about 200 who live in the strange little town perched on this harbor in Prince William Sound. But in Whittier’s case, size doesn’t much matter. The people sure know how to kick up the controversy. First, in July, the citizens of the city recalled Mayor Lester Lunceford for supposedly violating an open meetings act during one of the city council meetings. Now Pete Heddell, one of the city council members who pushed for the ousting, has himself resigned on the heels of accusations that he violated city code.
Lunceford had the position for 11 years. After the recall vote, the talk of the town was that many of those who voted to oust him were actually residents of Anchorage rather than of Whittier. So, ten residents signed a petition to try to contest the recall vote, but they didn’t read the fine print that stated that all of them had to be present when they turned in their petition and that their signatures needed to be notarized. Only five showed in person and none had their signatures notarized, said city manager Tom Bolen.
It’s unclear however, even if they had done everything right, that the recall would have been overturned.
The city goes by where the state says someone is registered, and the state is less concerned where a person claims his or her home to be than if they are voting twice. In other words, residency documentation is relatively loose. Whittier city code does little to clarify the state’s position.
City code is clear, however, that a person’s primary residence must be in Whittier if they are on the city council.
Councilman Heddell had been receiving the senior citizen tax exemption for a property that he owns in Anchorage. In order to get that exemption, he claimed that the Anchorage house was his primary residence.
On Monday, Heddell told Bolen that he was resigning to spend more time in Washington state.
Bolen who took the job in March, has also been caught in the controversy. The open meeting act that Lunceford allegedly violated involved the firing of the former city manager and Bolen’s hiring. Bolen, however, has no plans on going anywhere. He just hopes all the drama is over and everyone can focus on running the city.
When he walked into the job there were about $8 million worth of state grants to the city that had yet to be used and some of those grants are on the verge of expiring. In other words, if they don’t use it, they could lose it. Some of the money is for projects that had never moved forward from design to construction. At least one of them—a $325,000 grant for railroad improvements—had even yet to be conceptualized.
The city is now working with the Railroad to push that project forward. It’s also working on replacing a culvert, a road project, and environmental restoration project and is applying for grants for harbor and road improvements.
The big issue, however, the one that’s plagued the city for nearly a half a century, is what to do with the Buckner Building, the dilapidated concrete mammoth structure built in 1953 with the intention to withstand bombs and keeping as many as 1,000 soldiers safe if a Cold War army invaded.
It now sits on the edge of town, bruised but not broken, taking up precious land, but because it would be so expensive to tear down, no one knows what to do with it.
“It’s so amazing that Whittier’s such a small town and that there’s so much going on,” Bolen said. “It’s somewhat overwhelming to grasp it all.”
Amanda Coyne firstname.lastname@example.org