Whittier mayor faces recall and other strange things done in Alaska’s strangest town

If you thought that being a public official in a town of about 220 residents would be anything like easy, think again. Nothing about Whittier, dubbed the strangest town in Alaska, is easy. Getting there, through the 2.5-mile-tunnel is hard enough. Then there’s the weather. Summer can be beautiful, but in the winter, the city sees about 22 feet of snow every year. (For comparison’s sake, Anchorage, about 50 miles away, gets an average of about six feet.)

Once you do get there, through that tunnel, through the snow berms, you have to contend with residents, most of whom live in one of two buildings in the city. And they are residents, this reporter can attest, who tend to have very strong feelings about things, particularly in the winter, when the snow piles, the tunnel only opens part time, and the towers begin to feel like crypts.

This winter has been particularly tough for city officials, namely long-time mayor Lester Lunceford and new city manager Tom Bolen. Lunceford is facing a voter recall, and he and three other city council members are facing ethics charges.

The recall effort springs from a January 15 council meeting where Lunceford and other city council members allegedly violated the open meetings act by unlawfully going into executive session. Because what was discussed during that meeting is the stuff of mystery, it will, apparently, remain mysterious. However, word is that they began talking about finances, called the executive session, and then came out talking about something all together different.

Or something like that. In any case, the recall petition received the 31 signatures needed for certification. The vote is now set for July 23.

The ethics charges have to do with the hiring of Bolen and the firing of the previous city manager, which may or may not have been the subject of the executive session.

Bolen stepped into the Whittier maelstrom in March. He’s originally from Maryland. Before moving to Whittier, he had been living in Kotzebue for 28 years, ten of which were spent working for city and borough governments.

He finds the job, “challenging,” and the city “complex” he said.  In addition to all the controversy, 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.

And then, of course, there’s the question of what’s to be done 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, like the ghost of an old warrior who just won’t give up the war, taking up precious land. Land that some residents say could be used to build houses and get people out of the towers, out of being atop and under each other. Or, the building could be restored to its former glory and turned into a museum and tourist attraction perhaps. Or maybe people could move back in?

In any case, the debates will rage as they are wont to do in Whittier. For his part, Bolen is just keeping his head down, learning about the city and doing his job.

“I tell everyone that if you don’t have a thick skin you shouldn’t be in this position,” he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amandamcoyne@yahoo.com