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Whittier mayor out after fraught ballot count, but will city change?

Eli Martin
Former Mayor Lester Lunceford says he's disappointed but not surprised by the outcome of the vote, and “grateful and happy to have served the city of Whittier for 11 years.” He added that he planned to stay in Whittier. Eli Martin

Whittier, a town of 220 residents and one condominium nestled along Alaska’s Prince William Sound, witnessed the culmination of several months’ political intrigue Tuesday night. One week after a recall vote on July 23, longtime Mayor Lester Lunceford was confirmed gone after absentee ballots were counted at a special city meeting.

Daniel Blair, former vice mayor, immediately took over as acting mayor until city council elections in October.

The final tally amounted to a close but clear verdict -- 73 in favor of recalling Lunceford, with 58 opposed.

An attempt to contest the validity of the election by five residents failed Tuesday night -- according to guidelines 10 challengers needed to be present. They argued that the wording of the ballot left it unclear whether a “yes” vote recalled or backed Lunceford. Moreover, they asserted that some if not many of those of those registered to vote in Whittier do not actually live there, a long-standing controversy in the city.

As of Wednesday, legal action was reportedly being considered as a next step. Lunceford said he was disappointed but not surprised by the outcome of the vote, and “grateful and happy to have served the city of Whittier for 11 years.” He added that he planned to stay in Whittier. Lunceford is a dock manager for the Alaska Railroad Corp., which owns much of Whittier’s real estate. The city mayor is unpaid.

Absenteeism a perennial issue

While not involved in the effort to challenge the vote, he said it was a matter of fact that many voters do not actually live in the city. The vast majority of Whittier’s full-time residents live in the Begich Towers, one of the city’s two major buildings alongside the long-abandoned, ex-military Buckner Building.

Lunceford has himself been accused at past city council meetings of not actually living in Whittier, but instead “in a trailer up the hill” or in Anchorage. The former mayor was also adamant that he did nothing illegal or unethical at any point while mayor.

The recall petition ostensibly hinged on alleged ethics’ violations committed by Lunceford and other councilors during the firing of previous city manager Robert Prunella. Over the course of the recall campaign, it quickly became clear that investigations by Whittier’s city ethics committee -- into whether the mayor had held a special executive meeting with “erroneous specificity” when he dismissed Prunella -- belonged to a long-running feud between Lunceford and some residents of the city.

Peter Denmark, one of the organizers of the recall petition, said Wednesday it was his opinion that “quite a bit of damage was done here while Lester was mayor.”

“Whittier’s comprehensive plan is committed to recreation and tourism. During Lester’s tenure, a lot of real estate has reverted back to industrial concerns, specifically the railroad,” said Denmark, who operates Alaska Sea Kayakers in Whittier.

Due to its deep harbor connecting the Anchorage area and the glaciers of Prince William Sound, Whittier is a popular stop for many cruise ships. Denmark said he hoped that in the post-Lunceford era Whittier could prioritize its neglected waterfront infrastructure. Lunceford said that in the past “self-serving people” had tried to exploit positions on the city council, something he called a typical feature of small communities.

“I’m afraid that might be where this is leading again.” He said that for his part all he had to show for his 11 years as mayor was “my gratitude.”

Will divisions heal?

Lunceford added that he did not see Whittier getting over its divisions any time soon.

Blair, Whittier’s acting mayor, said he's trying to promote the notion that the city council works for the community, and said one of his immediate priorities was to fix the sound system in the council chambers.

“I can’t think of anything weirder than serving people who can’t hear you,” he said.

Blair went on to say that he was determined to fix the perception that the city had to look beyond the community to award its contracts, and would encourage local businesses to compete in bids. He said that in a community of Whittier’s size it was normal that city councilors should have outside professions, and that local contractors should not be overlooked as long as proper governance guidelines are followed.

Blair added that he intends to file for re-election in October and become Whittier’s permanent mayor.

Whittier, he said, needed to come together and avoid blaming Lunceford for its problems. “There are no excuses for the community because of what one individual’s issues were.”

Observers, including Denmark, praised Blair for diffusing an “emotional” situation at the absentee vote count on Tuesday.

Lunceford, in a written statement emailed after speaking with a reporter, said he now hoped Whittier could “continue to be the focal point of everything positive with its future for not only Whittier, but for all of south-central Alaska and Prince William Sound.”

Time will tell.

Contact Eli Martin at eli(at)alaskadispatch.com