Bus traffic at governor's mansion irks activist

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Gov. Sarah Palin is clashing with a Juneau activist over what he calls "voyeur" bus tours past the governor's mansion that he asserts ruin the neighborhood to exploit her fame.

Chip Thoma, head of Responsible Cruising in Alaska, has put up signs saying "Stop Local Tours" in the area near the mansion, with active support from at least a handful of residents.

"As Governor Palin spends very little time in Juneau, especially during the summer, these are 'voyeur' tours premised solely on her notoriety," Thoma said in an April 30 letter to Juneau tour operators.

Thoma said in a Friday interview, though, that the tours really aren't any worse than before Palin took office. He said it's not about her, but about impacts on the neighborhoods near Juneau.

The governor said she welcomes tourists and "can't imagine other areas of Alaska looking at having the Governor's house nearby as a degrading irritation that invites voyeurism."

The governor said she offered to meet with Thoma "to ask if I could lessen his burden by keeping a lower profile," but he declined and suggested she work it out with the Juneau mayor instead.

"I wanted to offer him to hide Piper's trampoline further in a corner of the yard ... if it's a matter of not giving anyone anything to look at so they'll go away then I'd ask Piper to not giggle so loudly on her buoy swing or bicycle in the yard," Palin said in a written statement, referring to her 7-year-old daughter.

Palin said she's spent most of her time in Juneau in recent months and finds the complaint ironic, given criticism in the capital city that she runs state government mostly from the Anchorage area.

"We've been slammed if we're not here enough, but now the table's turned and the message is we're creating chaos because we're here too often," Palin said in a written statement.

The bus tours are a combination of cruise ship company buses and local operations. Kirby Day of Princess Tours said the operators take measures such as avoiding going through the area at lunchtime and morning commute hours. He said there's actually been a large reduction over the years in buses going through the area.

"To characterize this as a major, major problem, it's just perplexing to us," Day said.

Thoma has distributed to tour bus operators a cartoon of the governor saying "stop ruining local neighborhoods for a tiny connection to Sarah Palin." He has also sent memos to the local tourism impact organization complaining about the tours.

Thoma, a longtime activist on tourism issues, said he suggested Palin work with the mayor instead of him because local ordinances are at issue.

"I'm trying to do what I can here to help the neighborhood. I don't want to make this personal between the governor and I," he said. "She is obviously coming after me, and I've never met her before."

Thoma said there were four people who lived in the area of the bus tours who talked to him about the problem and he decided to help do something about it. He said this has been an increasing problem over time under every governor.

"It has nothing to do with Sarah Palin, it really doesn't, she just happens to be governor in 2009," Thoma said.

Thoma wrote a letter to the governor's office on Friday saying he's critical of the tour groups, not the governor, and suggests a ban on big tour buses coming through the area. The "tours" are just five- to seven-second looks at the house as the bus goes through neighborhood streets on its way to other stops, he said, causing smoke, noise, congestion and safety issues.

Cindy Smith, who lives near Cope Park, downhill from the governor's mansion, said the tours are a big problem in the narrow streets and she has been talking to everyone she can about it.

"More and more buses are including this as part of an overall tour, and then they go out to the glacier or wherever they are going," she said.

Mayor Bruce Botelho said his primary concern was a proposed bus turnout in the area, but that's not going to happen and he doesn't foresee pursuing Thoma's issue with Palin.

Palin said she loves Juneau and likes to see it shown off to visitors. She said that, if she had her way, there would be a big banner in front of the governor's mansion and the Capitol building that said "Welcome, People! Locals and outside tourists -- we're glad you're here. It's beautiful here -- Enjoy!"

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.