Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial
News-Miner opinion: The state of Alaska and communities of the Fairbanks North Star Borough are at a crossroads in a time of financial hardship. The next five years will do much to determine the course the Interior and state will take over the generation that follows. But you’d have a hard time telling that by looking at the candidate roster in some of this year’s municipal races. For several seats, local voters will have either a single candidate on the ballot or no candidates at all, a situation that belies the gravity of the decisions officials will make in the next few years.
It’s worth noting off the bat that not all local races are short on options. Most borough races are contested, and some will feature strong contrasts between the candidates on the ballot. Voters will have three options for the borough mayor’s race, and the policy stances of each will offer distinct differences. The race features sitting state Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, current Borough Assembly Presiding Officer Karl Kassel, local activist Robert Shields and Cory Jackman. Other borough races for assembly seats and Interior Gas Utility board of directors slots are also contested by candidates with contrasting visions for the community.
But in city races in Fairbanks and North Pole, as well as for school board seats, the lack of contested races is dismaying. The two Fairbanks City Council seats in the mix this fall drew one candidate apiece. Regardless of the quality of candidates Joy Huntington and Perry Walley, it’s difficult for voters to get excited about going into the ballot booth without options from which to choose.
The two open school board seats are a similar situation: Incumbents Lisa Gentry and Heidi Haas are running unopposed for re-election. The lack of interest in school board races is surprising, given divisive issues before the board such as state budget cuts and reform of the district’s policies for reporting and dealing with sexual harassment and assault complaints.
In North Pole, the lack of candidates is more pronounced. Only Mayor Bryce Ward filed for re-election before the city’s deadline for candidates. That leaves Mr. Ward assured of a second term, while two City Council seats coming open drew no interest and will be filled either through write-in votes or appointment by the remaining members of the council.
The dearth of options in some local races is troubling because of the lack of interest it shows from community members in charting a course for Interior communities. But it also has secondary effects that could compound that issue. When fewer candidates run, it’s harder for voters to feel like they have choices that reflect their preference. And with fewer residents mustering the initiative to make it to the polls, civic engagement decreases, which could well mean even less candidate interest in future years.
That’s unfortunate. The Interior, as well as the whole of Alaska, will face difficult, meaningful decisions in the coming years. Many of those decisions will be made by those elected this fall.
While it’s not easy to volunteer to help steer the ship of government during hard financial times, such occasions are when we need good leaders most.
Kudos to those who did step forward to put their name into consideration this election season — in the years to come, our communities’ fates will rest in their hands.