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Trouble brewing for North Pole mayor

Joshua Saul

A showdown is brewing in North Pole, Alaska.

A North Pole citizens' group wants to recall the city's mayor, Doug Isaacson. Among other allegations listed in a release sent out Tuesday morning, the group says Isaacson used city money to buy meals, didn't disclose a loan made to his mortgage company by a lender Isaacson later appointed to head the city's economic development corporation, and cost the city tax revenue by failing to enforce sales tax regulations on a popular family restaurant in town.

"He just has a general lack of regard for city policies. He just thinks he's above all of it," said Dianna Lindhag, a North Pole city council member who is leading the recall. "Our lawyer said we should prosecute criminally."

Isaacson, mayor of North Pole since 2006 and a former Russian linguist in the Air Force, said the charges against him are "unsubstantiated." He also said the recall effort is motivated by political opportunism on the part of people who want his job.

North Pole is a city of 2,200 about 14 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. The city, billed as "the home of Santa Claus," receives thousands of letters addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole" from children all over the world.

Lindhag said the mayor spent over $4,000 on lunches over a two-year period, which she said is extravagant considering he also collected a per diem of $42 on many of the days he charged the city for lunch.

Many of the lunches were purchased when Isaacson traveled to Anchorage for meetings or Juneau to lobby, Lindhag said. At least one took place in town: In December Mayor Roger Purcell of Houston, another small-town mayor who is fighting a recall effort of his own, drove a Houston police car to Fairbanks (a misuse of a city vehicle that is one of the reasons his constituents want him out). While Purcell was in town, he and his wife sat down with Isaacson at Pagoda Restaurant on Santa Claus Lane. Isaacson picked up the tab, $88 with tip, and turned it over to the city of North Pole.

While North Pole has a policy that any meals purchased as part of "hosting duties" must be first approved by the council, Lindhag said that Isaacson routinely failed to obtain approval.

Isaacson said he didn't break any rules.

"There's going to be times when you have to take some folks out," he said.

Recall proponents also accuse Isaacson of failing to disclose a $5,000 loan accepted by his now-shuttered business, Gold Coast Mortgage. Lindhag said that while only $1,500 of the loan was repaid to the creditor, Buzz Otis, Isaacson later appointed Otis executive director of the North Pole Economic Development Corporation.

Then there's the issue involving Dahlman's, a local restaurant that stopped turning over sales tax to the city. Lindhag said when Dahlman's stopped handing in sales tax, the city should have shut it down. Instead, Lindhag said, Isaacson allowed the restaurant to make weekly payments on its debt. After the checks bounced and the North Pole City Council issued a cease and desist order, the restaurant owner skipped town. Lindhag said Isaacson's poor leadership cost the city about $10,000 in lost tax revenue.

Isaacson said the above conflicts are simply a "difference of opinion" and thinks it's strange that the recall proponents want him out but haven't talked to him straight up. If they think there are problems, he said, they should come to him and ask for documentation or explanation, not skulk around filing requests for information.

"I haven't had anybody sitting in my office saying ‘Hey, let's discuss this,'" he said.

He also thinks there are those who have their eye on his job.

"Some of it is political opportunism. Ultimately what it comes down to is hope that they can unseat me and then move into my position," Isaacson said. "That's one way of playing politics, but I don't think it's very good."

Lindhag doesn't buy it.

"He talks great, and he'll tell you how great he is," Lindhag said. "But the documents show that he's just a lot of smoke and mirrors."

B. Kevin McCarthy, who also sits on the North Pole City Council, said the recall effort is motivated by personal animosity towards the mayor. North Pole has bigger problems than a $10 lunch, he said. He also described Lindhag as the kind of person who feels that a penny spent in the wrong way needs to be investigated.

"This has to be something that's on a personal level," McCarthy said. "It's really sad, and it makes us look like a lot of ignorant hicks."

Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.