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Judge insists local leaders near Pebble Mine avoid conflicts of interest

Jill Burke

Score one for the anti-mining crowd in what has become Alaska's intense love-it-or-hate-it battle over the proposed Pebble Mine. A state court judge has told two local leaders in Southwest Alaska with financial ties to the mine to start obeying the law.

As conflicts of interest for public officials go, knowing when to recuse yourself from voting on something in which you have a financial stake seems glaringly obvious. Elected officials are trusted to work for the people when conducting government business, not themselves. Yet in a sparsely populated borough in rural Alaska, two politicians recently found themselves hauled into court for a stern refresher course -- and mandate -- about keeping their business matters clean and appropriate.

Five went after mayor, assemblyman

The Lake and Peninsula Borough is located adjacent to Bristol Bay, a vibrant fishing community downstream of lands abundant with buried copper and gold. The potential mining of these riches has become a divisive issue – both in the community, across Alaska and even in the Lower 48 and beyond. Supporters of the proposed Pebble gold mine are counting on it to bring jobs and needed infrastructure to struggling villages. Opponents fear it will only yield disaster, scarring lands and harming streams in which one of Alaska's largest runs of salmon breed.

The controversy landed squarely in the seat of local leadership when five anti-mining residents and politicians went after the mayor and an assembly member, charging them with conflicts of interest related to the mine. Their concerns ended up before to an Alaska Superior Court judge.

The result? In addition to findings that the mayor and assemblywoman were tied in too closely to matters they may oversee, it's a very public hand slap during an election season when pro-mine and anti-mine interests are duking it out for votes. A Pebble mine opponent, former Alaska state legislator George Jacko, is running against current mayor Glen Alsworth, Sr.

Judicial reprimand

On Tuesday, Alsworth and assemblywoman Lorene "Sue" Anelon were ordered by Kodiak-based Alaska Superior Court Judge Steve Cole "to immediately cease and desist from any and all uses of their official positions in the Lake and Peninsula Borough for personal or financial gain."

The judge's decision is the final outcome in a court controversy that began in May, when a quintet of residents disgruntled with the duo's dealings went to court to get what amounts to a restraining order on Alsworth's and Anelon's alleged self-serving activities. In his order issued Tuesday, Cole summed it up as requiring the mayor and assemblywoman to follow existing law.

The judge found that Alsworth and Anelon each had substantial financial relationships with the Pebble Mine developers. Alsworth owns Lake Clark Air, which has provided business travel and lodging for the developers. Anelon works for Iliamna Development Corp., which supports the mine. Alsworth's community conflicts potentially run even deeper, as his air service also does business with the Lake and Peninsula Borough and its school district. 

Cole said Alsworth and Anelon, who are seeking re-election, must:

• Disclose their sources of income accurately and on time;

• Not use their official positions, job equipment or resources to influence the Pebble Mine debate;

• Not use borough money to pay their legal bills in this court case; and

• Openly declare any conflicts of interest they may have before any vote. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com