The annual meeting of the Southeast Conference. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

The annual meeting of the Southeast Conference opened in Sitka on Wednesday morning. The three-day event is the largest gathering of regional government and business leaders. Over 300 attendees packed Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall beginning at 8 a.m. to pour over ideas for economic growth in Southeast, and to air their grievances against a governor whom they feel doesn’t understand the people or the region.

Sitka Mayor Gary Paxton welcoming the Southeast Conference to the community. Paxton is a former municipal administrator in Sitka, and a veteran of many Southeast Conferences. He wasted no time in setting the tone for this year’s meeting. In fact, it took him only 35 seconds to get to the point.

“It is a shame that our administration does not understand the importance of our place here in Southeast Alaska,” he said. “It is a national treasure. And part of that is our ability to interact with each other — specifically, the Alaska Marine Highway System.”

The Southeast Conference was founded 58 years ago to help establish the state ferry system. This is the first time in its history that the Conference has had to reckon with a governor who would close it down completely as of Oct. 1. The Legislature didn’t let that happen, but the system still took a 30 percent cut to maintain limited service over the winter — leaving many communities in Southeast and Prince William Sound without a ferry for months.

The transportation crisis crosses political and cultural lines in Southeast. Lesa Way, with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, used her opening remarks to call out short-sighted politics.

“There is a saying in our culture that when you give something to somebody, do not see me standing here, but the people who have gone before me, and the people that are coming after,” Way said.

Richard Peterson, who lives in Kasaan and is the president of the Tlingit & Haida Central Council, made the same point, but in the language of economics rather than culture.

“The health and vitality of our communities have grown dependent on this system,” he said. “And I think it’s something we should really come together on and work on, because I don’t think that some of our communities are going to be able to survive without this ferry system — this ferry system that we love, enjoy, and that does benefit not just Southeast Alaska, but Alaska. And there’s plenty of economic studies that prove that.”

The first morning session wrapped up with remarks from Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. With his hands on the purse strings of the operating budget, Stedman has taken some heat for allowing the ferries to fall victim to Gov. Dunleavy’s draconian funding approach. Stedman, however, told the Conference that because the governor needed only 16 votes in the Legislature to block any attempt to override a veto, that it was a stronger play politically to protect K-12 education funding, rather than sink the ferries in a losing veto battle.

“And that was the underlying impetus I had in my office to sit on the other side of the table from all your other elected officials in Southeast dealing with the Marine Highway, ” Stedman said. “And why I was not, as chairman of the operating budget in the senate, going to put a full-loaded Marine Highway budget in front of this governor. Because it would have been suicide for the Marine Highway System, in my opinion.”

On the recent closing of the Marine Highway route to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Stedman also had an opinion.

“From my office and my perspective, I want Prince Rupert more than I want Bellingham,” Stedman said.

Stedman hoped that Prince Rupert could be reintegrated into the ferry system, and suggested that a $2 million supplemental appropriation already passed and signed into the budget, could help resolve the disagreement between the Department of Transportation and US Customs that forced the shutdown of the port. “But we can’t control the DOT — they’re another branch of government,” Stedman said. “but I’m sure we can have some love language to encourage them to work through the issues.”
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