Thursday, October 31, 2019

Alaska City on the Move: WASILLA!

The new Wasilla Sonic restaurant is located in the Sun Mountain development. It did $500,000 worth of business in its first three days.

With 11 months before Mayor Bert Cottle is termed out of office, he is talking to groups throughout the Matanuska-Susitna area about what has been happening in Wasilla with emphasis on a “bucket list” of what he wants to accomplish before leaving city hall.

From road improvements and an expanded airport, a vital new library activity center, upgrades to the Menard Center including a park, collaboration with the Alaska Railroad, a new police department and a glorious veteran’s wall, Mayor Cottle presemts a Power Point and entertaining commentary to describe his vision and what has happened.

Economic development is a highlight.

“The Mat-Su Borough has an inventory tax; every year you have to do an inventory reporting of what is on your property if you are a commercial business,” explained Cottle in a presentation to the Susitna Rotary on October 23. “This last year that amounted to $85 million. The City of Wasilla has 68% of all the inventory in the borough, which is up 2% of what it was last year. That’s our niche. Our 14 square miles is commercial; this is where you are going to go shopping. We are not recreational, not tourism, not government services. We’re the shopping district.”

Whether located in the city of Wasilla, or just doing business in the city, a business license is required. It cost $25. This year Wasilla issued over 2,500 licenses, of which 350 are new businesses.

“So my goal, if you are doing business in Wasilla, is for you to make a lot of money,” Cottle continued. “If you don’t make money I don’t make money. When Sonic came in, they did over half a million dollars in the first three days. I get my three cents on the dollar and that’s a good thing. I get my $15,000 and you get half a million! I am fine with that.”

Plenty more is coming. McDonald’s just remodeled and expanded, Fred Meyer is going to have a new gas station at Sun Mountain, Matanuska Telephone Association will also build there and two new apartment buildings are going up. A major hotel chain also has interest in the site..

“Yeah, we’re going to have lots of jobs,” he adds.

Riley and Roberts Streets have had substantial work during this construction season. Riley
has been cut through from near the Senior Center to Endeavor Street. It will relieve traffic from six ballparks, coming out by the Iditarod Headquarters. Roberts is the road behind Home Depot that provides access for a new proposed development at the gravel pit across the Parks Highway from Wasilla Lake.

Riley Street is established from KGB around to Endeavor.

“Where the train depot is located now, (at the corner of KGB and Parks Highway) we have never owned that building until a couple of years ago,” explained Cottle. “It hasn’t been used as a train depot since the 1950s or 60s, and the Chamber of Commerce has rented it from the Alaska Railroad for a dollar. Now we do that with the Chamber.”
Roberts Street provides access from behind Home Depot to the Gravel Pit where the Train Depot will be relocated.

Wasilla owns 11 acres across from the Wasilla Lake park next to the condos at the gravel pit. Next summer the train depot—it is historic and has value—will be moved down to a spot in what is now a gravel pit. Cottle says it’s going to take a couple of years, but the plan is for a train platform. Some 2,000 people get on and off the train in Wasilla now. Alaska Railroad won’t continue to stop in a place that blocks KGB, and he doesn’t want to lose the train stop.
The historic train depot will be moved next summer.

“Someday we will have the right politics in place to hopefully establish a commuter train that will run from that terminal,” he continued. “In November, when we had the earthquake, and when the truck damaged the Eagle River overpass, we had 800 school teachers in the valley who could not make it to Anchorage, so they had to shut down some schools. I told them: ‘Now is the time to try it--run that train!’”

The Mayor is critical of Alaska Railroad officials, who he admits “don’t send me many Christmas cards.”

“They said: ‘No, we would have to pay overtime. We don’t have the crew. They had excuses.’  Then not too long after that I saw a train go by full of people—a passenger train—and I called them back and said ‘Hey, somebody hijacked your train and it is going through Wasilla full of people! They said ‘No that’s the ski train.’ I told them we needed to make that train available to thousands of people as commuters, who need to get back and forth to Anchorage, and they still refused to consider it.”

The 11 acre city site is going to be developed into an historic area with classic buildings, antique handcarts, adequate parking and a road that comes out by the clothing store.
Wasilla Airport is being expanded to provide more tie downs and parking for events like the Wings over Wasilla annual airshow 

Improvements have also been made to the Airport: “We just finished up a $3.9 million grant from the feds. We added two future rental lots and now we have 26. All 26 are filled. We have 27 new tie downs and they will all be booked, but we have a wait list, so anybody in the old section got first chance in the new section and we now have a total of 155 tie downs. We were also able to purchase an additional 70 acres so we have a total of 504 acres there. We worked out an arrangement with the truck driving school NIT to let them practice there and we are going to turn it into a big new parking lot. When we host the Wings Over Wasilla, called WOW, we will have shuttles back and forth creating more room and more parking.”

About 3,000 people turn up for the WOW air show this year and next year the military has promised a fly-over, according to Cottle. As this event continues to grow it will require more parking.
Wasilla Library and activity center.

Another success story, the Library: “It has been open a couple of years now, we have about 115,000 to 120,000 people going to that library each year,” Cottle said. “The library has developed into an activity center. There is the library part and there is the entryway which has two additional rental rooms. We charge $25 for the small room and $35 for the big room. We have learned that if we don’t charge some kind of fee some people will abuse the system.”

The old library had 16 parking spots. The borough provided four acres to build the library and an additional acre is being leased. “We started developing it this year and discovered there is a sinkhole there, so next year we will put another 30 spots in there,“ he explained. The old library is going to be re-purposed into a new museum with completion date set for June 1, 2020.

The Menard Center and nearby acreage owned by the city is also being enriched to encourage usage.

“We took our portion of the recreational bonds passed a couple of years ago and built a one-mile ADA Accessible paved trail around the Menard Center and it is complete. I see people out there with walkers!” Cottle enthused.

The historic theme will continue on city land owned near the Menard Center.

“Anybody who has been around here any time will remember the old Tryck Nyman Hayes engineering company; the Tryck family built a house here in the 1930s or 40s. They donated it to us and said ‘we like what you are doing to restore this area so we will give you the house so you can restore or move it.’ The number for restoring it came in at $70,000 but eventually I would like to see an AlaskaLand or Pioneer Park-like place there, with 5-6 of the old houses. Other houses have been donated including the Territorial School. It is down there on the other side of the tracks and when MEA wants to put in some new power lines we want to go in and move that building) out.”

Wasilla has nine city parks--more than anybody--but no playground on that end of town. So, on 60 acres owned on the second driveway by the Menard Center, Cottle intends to install a $70,000 playground set which is on its way. It will be installed by next summer. Trailhead parking, bathrooms, picnic tables, will all be fenced in on one acre.
One of two ARR flatbed cars to be refurbished for use by the City of Wasilla.

“If you have been out there recently you might have seen I got the Alaska Railroad to give us a couple of old beat up train flat cars,” said Cottle. If you went to the Mayor’s Picnic on July 4 you probably saw the one flat car, they were pretty beat up when we got it and we stripped the paint, repainted and redocked it. You can’t hurt them, and anyway they gave me two so we’re going to do the same thing to the second one, and we recently got the Clapp Street lighting for the Trailhead and two driveways done out there.

We also built a storage shed to replace a Conex. When we built these facilities--like the Menard Center--we agreed that leftover money should go into structures rather than wages or trips or anything like that. So we had enough money left over after we built that building some 12-13 years ago to build a storage shed. We needed a storage shed because if we can get the storage out of the Menard Center we can be rent that space.

In recent years a lot of Alaskans have become concerned about crime, wondering what our elected officials are doing about it. Cottle is a former policeman and his emphasis is clear.
The Wasilla Police Department will become an Emergency Services Command  Center.

“We are big believers in forward-funding the police department and we save nearly $3 million in interest and bonds that don’t get passed on to the voters and our kids and grandkinds. We’re going to cut that out early because we have raised the money by December 1st instead of December 31st of this year, and we’re going to have the opening in July. Now it is $1-1/2 Million and the construction company is going to be out of there early so we should be able to move in there early,” he said.

The police department will move into a new new location at the site of the old Iditarod School but dispatch stays upstairs in the current building.

“I can’t afford to move all that communication equipment. Right now it’s about 10,000 square feet--5,000 upstairs and 5,000 down--and we have the second largest dispatch center in the state. We have 35 people working there, five people minimum on 24-hours per day. We answer the phone 800 times per day; dispatch for Alaska State Troopers, Mat-Su Fire, Mat-Su EMS, Houston Fire, Chickaloon Police Department, and some work for the feds.”

Downstairs is going to be Mat-Su Borough Emergency Services, run by Casey Cook. That will be their command center. In the next earthquake, fire or flood everybody will be in the same building.
The new Wasilla Police station is under construction and expected to be completed ahead of schedule.

Finally, Cottle explained what the City has been doing at the relocated Veteran’s Wall of Honor.

“I don’t want to say what happened to get to this point but we stood up and said We’ll fix it,” he said. “By the time we are done fixing it we are going to have a million dollars into it.”

The city of Wasilla gave the Veteran organization nine-tenths of an acre for the wall in front of where the old Iditarod School was located. Phase I was done last year, including moving the original 7 panels from the old location to the new location. Phase 2, this year included putting up 6 new panels, providing space for an additional 2,000 names. The concrete was set the third week of October providing room for an additional row or two of panels. Six large insignias, one for each of the branches of military, are in route. What the City of Wasilla agreed to was “we will pay for electricity, we will make sure it is maintained, through AMVETS or American Legion. We’re working on a $250,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation and I think there are 8 pillars up now. Next summer we hope to put up a pavilion. I guarantee it will look nice; I’ve got 10 family members on that wall.”

An important part of Mayor Cottle’s political philosophy is a belief in private/public partnerships. He demonstrated how he applied such a partnership to moderate impact of what has been called the “bag ban” on plastic bags.

“For anybody who followed it, that wasn’t about banning plastic bags, that was about taxing every commercial business ten cents per bag,” he explained. “Income came to about $2.1-2.2 million in revenues the borough would collect. Wasilla businesses were about $1.8 million of that. So, I went to the Borough and asked: ‘how much of that do I get?’ They said ‘you don’t get anything!’ You’re going to get $1.8 million from Wasilla businesses? I’m not going to get any money back even for the 7-8 kids I hire every summer to go out and pick up garbage, or anything?

“So we just banned plastic bags outright so they couldn’t tax us.

“I went to the schools that year--because we contribute to the schools--and I told them: ‘I’m going to tell you how to triple the money I give you!’ We partnered with the schools to come out with reusable plastic bags, with the city logo on one side and the Wasilla Warriors on the other side designed by the kids. They sold them for $5 each and tripled their money. Since then other high schools have seen this and are doing it all across the state as a fundraiser.”

Wasilla is a city on the move and within a year someone else will take over.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Iditarod Challenge
One of the greats in the history of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Dick Mackey, shown here with his wife Kathy, was inducted during a ceremony this summer into the Knik Musher's Hall of Fame.  He won the race in 1978 by the closest margin in the history of the event. His son Rick Mackey won the race in 1983 and another son, Lance Mackey won four consecutive races between 2007-2010.

As a newly-arrived youth in Anchorage during the early 1960s I recall my two favorite events of the winter carnival known as the Fur Rendezvous held in February: The fur auction and the dog sled races. These were thrilling activities which symbolized my newly adopted northern lifestyle.

For hours I watched as raw furs stripped from the carcasses of animals caught in steel traps were hoisted above the heads of auctioneers who spoke in excited chants inviting members of the audience to buy until the huge rack of dead animal skins was empty.

The World Championship Sled Dog Race held during Fur Rondy to this day starts downtown on 4th Avenue and cycles all around the area to conclude at the same spot. Tons of snow is brought in with city trucks and dumped on various roads blocked off to accommodating the athletes. Back then some mushers had whips, and some kicked the dogs and yelled at them. But this midwinter event was a chance for men of the north to come to town with their dogs in boxes on the back of rusty trucks, to sell the product of their lonely trapping endeavors, perhaps race their dogs for possible winnings, get good and drunk at least once--and maybe get some poon-tang--before heading back to the remote log cabin to begin preparation for spring.

As a youth it was a glorious guy-thing for me.

Alaskan sled dog racing is believed to date back to the gold rush era of Nome, where the Nome Kennel Club held races such as the All Alaska Sweepstakes (408 miles) and the Borden Cup Marathon (26 miles) from about 1906 until 1916. When gold mining activities declined in the area, Alaskan sled dog racing turned to the Interior. A 57-mile race was run between Ruby and Poorman, and in 1927 the Signal Corps race was created in Fairbanks by the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System. The Signal Corps races initially followed a trail of some 58 miles between Fairbanks and Chatanika, which reached 2,240 feet in elevation near Summit. In 1931, the contestants ran two 30-mile heats, and in 1935, it became a mid-distance race to the Salcha bridge and back. In 1935 a musher named Bob Busky won the race for the third time and retired the trophy.1

Dr. Roland Lombard during Fur Rendezvous

Racing of dog teams pulling sleds began in Alaska and is associated with Alaska throughout the world even now that it has become an international sporting event.

I didn’t know the history of sled dog racing as I watched those sprint teams in Anchorage during the 1960s, but one year the sport I only witnessed during Fur Rendezvous changed, with the entry of an Outside veterinarian named Dr. Roland Lombard. I remember him on the street with his dogs, as a crusty mild-mannered guy who treated his animals like they were his cherished children. He didn’t scream in threatening tones, he didn’t have a whip, he didn’t kick them, and he won the race!

From Wayland, Massachusetts, Doc Lombard won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race eight times in the 1960s and 1970s and was known for bringing innovative ideas about dog care to Alaska.2

I also recall some people grumbling at bush flying operations on Merrill Field at the fact he came up here from Outside and beat all these long-time Alaskans, but over the years Doc Lombard became a beloved favorite of the Rondy public and part of the community of mushers who wanted to see the sport improve with humane treatment of the animals and better purses for winners.

The Iditarod Dream

Joe Reddington, Sr.
During the early 1970s a new dog racing event was proposed by Knik musher Joe Reddington. I was in attendance during one of his heartfelt presentations seeking sponsorship from Alaskans for an event originally set in 1967 to celebrate the Alaska centennial, and the 1925 dogsled run to Nome with lifesaving serum to save that community from a deadly diphtheria epidemic.

The only serum available at that time was in Anchorage and the engine of the only aircraft that could deliver the medicine was frozen and would not start. The serum was transported by train to Nenana, where the first musher began the rush to save Nome. More than 20 mushers took part, facing a blizzard with -20F temperatures and strong winds. News coverage of the event was worldwide.3

This is part of our Alaskan heritage. As Alaskans we cherish dogs who serve in so many ways, from pulling sleds to serving as police, fetching downed ducks to service animals for people with disabilities.

In 2019 Reddington is long gone, but his dream of a race from southcentral to Nome has been realized annually more than 45 years. Since the first race of the modern iditarod in 1973 I have watched it every year. Just as horses are used for travel in much of the world, dog sleds are a reliable means of transport in our northern climate, especially when a machine is frozen. Because of Iditarod a revival in dog mushing has occurred in Alaska and around the world. As a teacher I promoted the Iditarod race among my students and to colleagues in and out of Alaska. At one time Iditarod generated curriculum was used in over 6,000 schools nationwide and the education program continues forcefully. 

Dogs, raised as if they were children of the mushers, demonstrate with their exuberance how much they love to participate in this grueling but fulfilling annual marathon.

How Iditarod has changed.

In his comprehensive book about the first 10 years of the Iditarod, entitled “The Last Great Race,” Tim Jones provides an overview of the organization sponsoring it and details of the 1982 race checkpoint by checkpoint, including the “Official 1982 Rules & Interpretation, Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race” prepared by the Iditarod Trail Committee, Inc. (ITC)4

It is a quaint set of rules, providing for the start to be in Anchorage regardless of weather conditions and that all teams will leave at staggered times starting at 10 a.m. on the designated March race day. All teams are required to stop for one 24-hour rest at any time they choose, and a checkpoint official must be informed of intent to take the required break. Entry fee was $1049.00. Rookie mushers were required to submit the recommendation of two known dog mushers or a dog mushing organization to be considered by the ITC for approval to run.

Mushers under those rules must start the race with no less than seven dogs, no more than 18, and they must finish the race with no less than five dogs on the towline. (Today the rules simply say no more than 14 dogs in a team, finish with minimum 6 at the end.) Dogs may not be added to a team after the start of the race. The sled or toboggan used was up to the musher, but it was required to be able to haul any injured or fatigued dogs and necessary equipment. Harnesses were required to be padded.

Only one musher was permitted per team and that musher required to finish with that team. Dogs could not be switched between teams after they officially left Anchorage and, teams were forbidden from being tied together, nor a substitute musher allowed to take over any team.


Further rules provide for the orderly running of the race when participants camp along the way, never tampering with another musher’s dogs, food or gear; forbidding outside assistance between checkpoints, prohibition against motorized vehicles including pacing of racers, unless an emergency is declared by the race marshal.

Iditarod is understood to be a northern dog race requiring participants to apply skill and endurance with teams of dogs to cover what was then 1,049 miles of Alaska wilderness. The rules recognized that men or women who were able to compete in such a race were unique individuals who had a tremendous investment in the animals chosen to take them this distance.

One friend of mine related recently the fact he covered the first Iditarod as Business Reporter for the Anchorage Times, investigating whether ITC had the money needed to pay the winner’s purse. While the race continued over several weeks ITC was able to get backing from Marvin R. “Muktuk” Marston, who pledged a piece of land for collateral and assured the winner was paid.

Participants in the Iditarod Education Program ( were recognized and new Teacher on the Trail Brian Hickox introduced during the annual volunteer picknic held at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla this summer.

Heart and soul of a lot of Alaskans have gone into this race over the years.
In the 1983 rules, mandatory gear under race rule 23 includes eight booties for each dog either in the sled or in use and in the sled. A minimum of four pounds per dog per checkpoint of food, plus the musher’s food were required, which had to be shipped to necessary official checkpoints by a designated date before the race. Provisions were made for best accommodation of injured, fatigued or sick dogs. This included shipping dropped dogs, accountability for expired dogs, and responsibility of each musher to care and feed dogs between checkpoints.

These thoughtful rules demonstrate the focus and enduring commitment of ITC and the many employees and volunteers who make this event possible. Expectation of the ITC is summed up in an explanation of Rule 36: “All mushers will conduct themselves in a civil and sportsmanlike manner during the entire racing event.”

Explanation: The race depends on the assistance of hundreds of volunteers who help out through their own generosity. A musher’s conduct is a direct reflection on the Iditarod Trail Committee and the public reputation of the event. The entire racing event includes the awards presentation in Nome and all money winning teams are expected to attend.
More than three decades later, the 2019 Iditarod race rules take up 18 pages and the organization has a comprehensive web page.5

Among other statements in the Preamble to the rules is the following:

The object of the race is to determine which musher and dogs can cover the race in the shortest time under their own power and without aid of others. That is determined by the nose of the first dog to cross the finish line.

Policy Intent—The intent of these rules is to ensure fair competition and the humane care of sled dogs. The race should be won or lost by the musher and dogs on merit rather than technicalities. Race officials appointed by the ITC are responsible for interpreting and enforcing the rules in keeping with that intent.
Entry fee is now $4,000. In addition to the 24-hour mandatory stop, one of three required 8-hour stops must be the Yukon river. Rules to enhance care and comfort of dogs have embellished those originally set. A “Good Samaritan Rule” provides:

A musher will not be penalized for aiding another musher in an emergency. Incidents must be explained to race officials at the next checkpoint.
Under Rule 30 mushers are tested for drugs and alcohol.

Alcohol or drug impairment, the use of prohibited drugs by mushers, and positive results on drug or alcohol tests administered during a Race are each prohibited.
Who could have expected in 1974 that mushers in remote parts of the state might some day carry small electronic devices that told their exact positions and allowed two-way audio and video communication? For a long time the use of cell phones or GPS were forbidden, but in the 2019 rules they are allowed under Rule 35:

A musher may carry and use any two-way communication device(s), including, but not necessarily limited to, a cell and/or satellite telephone. Use of such devices may not be used for any media purposes during the course of the race unless expressly approved in advance by ITC. A musher may also carry an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), a Spot™, or other similar satellite tracking device. However, activation of any help or emergency signal, including accidental activation, may make a musher ineligible to continue and may result in an automatic withdrawal from the race. Use of a GPS is also permitted.
Again, safety of the mushers and their dogs is the pre-eminent concern.

Veterinary Issues and Dog Care Rules are listed from Rule 37 to 46. They include specific provisions for Dog Care, Equipment and Team Configuration, Drug Use, Pre-Race Veterinary Exam, Jurisdiction and Care, Expired Dog, Dog Description, Dog Tag, Returned Dogs, and Hauling Dogs.

These rules have evolved. For instance, the running of a team of poodles caused the description of dogs allowed in the race to become “Only dogs suitable for arctic travel will be permitted to enter the race…” because the nature of poodle hair caused the animals to become frozen to the ground when they bedded down on ice.
In the case of an expired dog the rules are explicit:

Any dog death that occurs during the race results in immediate scratch or withdrawal, except only unless the death was caused solely by unforeseeable, external forces.
Any dog that expires on the trail must be taken by the musher to a checkpoint. The musher may transport the dog to either the checkpoint just passed, or the upcoming checkpoint. An expired dog report must be completed by the musher and presented to a race official along with the dog. At this time the musher shall scratch or be withdrawn from the race, except in the case of death due to unforeseeable, external forces. All dog deaths will be treated as a priority, with every effort being made to determine the cause of death in a thorough and reliable manner.
Persons offended by brutal nature see only the unforeseen events out of the control of man or dog and react. Iditarod has suffered by such insufferable people.

A PETA Protest in Downtown Anchorage during the Iditarod start was countered by a member of the Alaska Trapper's Association passing counter-literature.

The Iditarod Race is under attack now for many years, as the organization that runs it struggles to respond to a predator organization while also conducting a phenomenal multifaceted sporting event. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has chosen the Iditarod Sled Dog Race as one of its primary fund-raising targets, pouncing on this Alaskan event--as one politician might attack the slip of the tongue by another hapless politician--for a fundraising bonanza.

They have hurt Iditarod.

The latest shrill PETA fundraising effort declares: “Eight Reasons Why the Iditarod Race Should Be Terminated Will Leave You Outraged.” They include: “1. Dog deaths at the Iditarod are so routine that the official rules blithely state that some “may be considered unpreventable,” 2. If the dogs don’t die on the trail, they’re still left permanently scarred, 3. There’s no retirement plan, 4. Dogs pull mushers’ sleds up to 100 miles a day, 5. As many as half the dogs who start the Iditarod don’t finish, 6. No dog would choose to run in this arctic nightmare, 7. Thousands of dogs are bred each year for sled racing, and 8. Dogs at sled-dog breeding compounds have died of numerous ailments.”6

New Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach has determined he will encounter PETA in hopes common ground might be found after all the damage done by that group. He even went hat-in-hand to Los Angeles to meet with the president of the predator organization on October 17. Another video by some wackjob declaring “What I Saw as a PETA Observer at Iditarod Champions’ Dog Yards” was posted on the PETA blog October 21.

PETA sees Iditarod Sled Dog Race blood on the snow.

PETA is an enemy combatant. Any sponsor of Iditarod who pulls support based on PETA is complicit with these ignorant people. These are the companies PETA brags about convincing to drop support for Iditarod:  Coca-Cola, Costco, Jack Daniel's, Maxwell House, NestlĂ©, Pizza Hut, Rite Aid, Safeway, State Farm, and Wells Fargo.

New sponsors need to step forward. Urbach’s real mandate is to engage companies who stand strong for American tradition and spirit.
Many businesses have been harmed by PETA. They should be interested in supporting Iditarod. Businesses harmed by PETA's charges against their support of Iditarod are rewarding the preditor organization by withdrawing support.

Workings dogs die. Some are injured. The ITC works hard to assure the animals receive the best possible treatment, but the inevitable can happen and PETA exploits the exceptions to condemn the event overall. It is a ruthless tactic used against many worthy organizations and endeavors.

With half-truths and lies PETA writes as if it were speaking for the animals after consulting with them about what they think. It is propaganda to target people easily influenced by emotional appeals who are incapable of critically evaluating what is being said and why.  

Iditarod is an honorable pursuit. By declaring war on Iditarod, by association PETA has declared war on Alaskans, who live a northern lifestyle with working dogs of all kinds, fur parkas, and meat in our diet. We don’t fit PETA's California mind-set.

And, we cannot let those crazy people win.

4 Jones, Tim, The Last Great Race, 1982 Madrona Publishers

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Teacher Union Mob Action

A Teacher’s Dilemma


Mark Janus, Public Employee Agency Fee Payer

Some 8,000 teachers work for k-12 public schools in Alaska and an estimated 2,500 cycle annually in and out of the jobs provided in more than 50 school districts. Most of these districts provide teacher employment contracts as part of Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) negotiated with a local union affiliate of the National Education Association, (NEA) whose state affiliate is NEA-Alaska.

Not all government teachers who work in Alaska are members of the union, however. Some choose to be what are called “Agency Fee Payers,” who only contribute the local portion of dues, which are required as a condition of employment under those CBAs. This is based on the idea that union efforts get members the salary and benefits they enjoy as public employees. Therefore, all employees of that class should have to at least pay for that portion of union services.

Union teachers also sometimes refer to Fee Payers derisively as “free loaders.” But in Alaska, great teacher, acceptable teacher, bad teacher, terrible teacher doesn’t matter. All pay the same dues and receive the same union benefits/protections.

Full disclosure: I worked for NEA-Alaska in the Juneau Headquarters Office over nine years during the time they got the right to strike in state law. I later became an Alaska certified teacher and was required to be a member of NEA over one year in a rural district. I chose to not work for an employer requiring union membership over the rest of my teaching career, between 2003-2017.

David Nees at a School Board Candidate Forum
Local retired Anchorage School District (ASD) teacher David Nees was a Fee Payer over his 28-year career and during a recent interview explained why he refused to join the Anchorage Education Association/ NEA-Alaska/ NEA cartel.

“I believe it was 1986 when we all went to East High to vote on a contract that had been sent to the arbitrator, and the union representatives said, ‘Hey, this is a really good contract’ so we got to vote for a pig in a poke (the union had negotiated),” said Nees. “Everybody voted for that pig in a poke; what we got was a three-year freeze of salaries and the union got Closed Shop. I became a Fee Payer at that point.”

Closed Shop is defined as a place of work where membership in a union is a condition for being hired and for continued employment. A cartel is an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition. Unions supply workers and use withdrawal of services to coerce employers--in this case school boards whose members are often elected with union contributions and volunteers.

Nothing the union does is meant to improve the quality of public education, utterly nothing.

According to Nees, from that time until today all ASD teachers are required to be members of AEA or formally declare their Fee Payer status, and pay what a judge annually determines is a “fair share” for union services. Additionally, former AEA President, Andy Holleman is a current elected member of the ASD Board.

But there is another way of looking at this requirement.

“The ASD collects Anchorage Education Association dues, and sends them to AEA, meaning basically AEA works for the district,” explained Nees. “When you pay the local dues you are paying for local representation--so $130 out of $1,400 annual dues goes for local representation while the rest goes to state and national organizations to support the national agenda.”

Nees says there are other reasons he doesn’t want to be a member of NEA/NEA-Alaska; he believes the national agenda is “leftist,” meaning their political agenda doesn’t reflect his views. In fact, that complaint has long been expressed by many teachers who refused to be members and only paid their local share.

In my own experience at NEA-Alaska, teachers were encouraged by the union to be political sheep. A few like Nees are black sheep--who don’t accept things they think could be better just because that’s the way those things have always been done.

And he doesn’t vote Democrat with the herd, either.

“I started teaching at Clark Middle School in about 1983; it was a poor side of town, kids were having trouble getting to school, we had a thousand kids packed in the old building,” Nees reminisces. “About three years later I was transferred over to Hanshew—a school with 1,400 kids—and what I noticed right away was the kids were a year ahead of those I had been teaching at Clark!”

Nees continued: “I spent the next 25 years of my life at that school. I taught mostly Math, occasionally Home Ec, and some other classes. I coached cross-country skiing, cross-country running, and track; all individual team sports, like what I mostly did as a kid. I really enjoyed the time there, raised my kids there, teaching junior high. My wife taught high school, and just retired this year after 39 years at ASD.”

The Nees are Alaskans planning on staying in Alaska. A lot of teachers who retire in Alaska cannot wait to go home—he estimates a third of his cadre of ASD teachers have stayed in Alaska after retirement.

Over the years, Nees has also committed himself to examining education policy, even running for the ASD Board of Education and the Anchorage Assembly. He was chosen in 2014 as a teacher member of the Alaska House of Representatives Sustainable Education Task Force, over the strenuous objection of NEA.

That Legislative Task Force included two legislators, a former superintendent, a public member, a business accounting professional, a rural Native and Nees as a teacher representative. It examined Alaska public education and a report about what it found is on a shelf with many other reports examining Alaska public education without much consideration of the union influence on our schools.

The union influence is considerable.

And there is new twist to the paradigm of unions herding Alaska public employment teachers: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 historic decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 found that the state of Illinois cannot require nonunion public employees to be required to pay an “agency fee” to cover union expenditures for collective bargaining activities. In a 5-4 decision, the High Court concluded that the state’s extraction of agency fees from non-consenting public employees violates the First Amendment.

Oklahoma Teacher Walkout
NEA President: Regardless of Janus Decision, ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’

The mandate to extract proportional dues from Fee Payers is in every Alaska state and local government employment contract with the various public employee unions. Additionally, these fee payers typically cannot vote in union elections or for proposed contracts.

Despite this 2018 Janus decision, the same system is in use by Alaska state and municipal governments to continue to extract dues from all government workers on the assumption that they are automatically union members under the respective CBA and state employment laws. The Janus decision recognizes that coercing membership in an organization that takes political positions individual members do not agree with is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It says teachers like Nees should not have to contribute to tyranny of the majority in what he feels are leftist political  agendas of the National and State unions.

And while the Janus decision found the Fee Payer clause unconstitutional, it is still in most School District Negotiated Agreements. An example is the recent KPEA teacher contract.
1. Employees represented by the bargaining unit shall not be required to join KPEA; however, all employees who choose not to join KPEA shall be required as condition of employment to pay a representation fee to KPEA. The representation fee shall be an amount equal to the regular KPEA, NEA-Alaska, and NEA dues.
2. The representation fee shall be regarded as fair compensation and reimbursement to KPEA for fulfilling its legal obligation to represent all members of the bargaining unit.
3. All dues/fees deductions will be made only upon written authorization of the employee. It is the responsibility of the employee to notify the Association at the same time.
4. Payment of such dues/fees shall be deducted from members in nine (9) monthly payments commencing with the September payroll as directed by the Association. “

So how CAN government teachers and other public employees now be protected from union coercion in their employment relationships in view of this Supreme Court decision if the employer colludes with the union to ignore it?

Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson published an opinion this past August saying that the Janus decision requires “affirmative consent” and “clear and compelling evidence” that government workers who opt to pay dues are not coerced and are informed that paying money to unions waives their First Amendment rights.

Alaska Attorney General, Kevin Clarkson breaks the news to
public employee union bosses

From Clarkson’s opinion: “To ensure that the State of Alaska does not deduct union dues or fees from an employee without “clear and compelling evidence” that the employee freely consents to the deduction, consent must be provided directly to the state. “Rather than permitting the union to control the conditions in which the employee provides consent to a payroll deduction from their state-paid wages, the State may implement and maintain an online system and new written consent forms through which employees wishing to authorize payroll deductions for union dues and fees may provide consent.”

Employees must “opt in.”

Of course the Alaska State Employee’s Union has sued their members’ employer because their CBA provides for ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 to be the exclusive representative of all state General Government Unit employees, union membership as a condition of working for the State of Alaska, and feepayers required to contribute to the union as a condition of employment.

Ironically I also worked for this state employee union in Juneau 4-1/2 years and can readily understand why state employees at the bottom of the pay scale might be tempted to forgo union dues to buy food.

High-handed Alaska unions don’t believe teachers and state workers know what is best for their own interests. ASEA is in court trying to find a way to continue fleecing government sheep instead of allowing them to choose union membership on their own.

Union members are not customers, you know.

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