The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage Assembly to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.
John Weddleton | District: 6 | Age: 63.5 | Occupation: Retailer | weddletonforassembly.com
What is a short summary of your background?
I’ve been a business owner all of my adult life. I was an economic consultant then moved into retail, wholesale and commercial property. I have decades of public service, including co-founding the Spenard Chamber of Commerce, serving on and chairing the Hillside’s Home and Landowners Organization (HALO), serving on the planning and zoning commission, on the Credit Union 1 board of directors, active leadership on community councils and the Boy Scouts of America as a Pack Master and Assistant Scout Master. I’ve been a resident of South Anchorage for over 20 years, I have represented the South Anchorage, Girdwood and Turnagain Arm communities on the Anchorage Assembly since 2016. I am married with four children, four motorcycles, four bicycles and more than four pairs of skis.
Why are you running?
I am looking forward to three more years. While the view is clouded by the pandemic and the state’s ongoing recession, we have accomplished a lot over the past six years. We have a lot of big things going on and I want to continue to be a part of that. As chair of the Community and Economic Development Committee and with a seat on the AMATS Policy Committee, I am in a good position to help with allocation of federal infrastructure funds. With the mayor’s commitment to addressing homelessness, we are making real progress. We are continuing to work every angle to get more housing. We are fixing the Port. There are big things ahead, I know how to get the work done and I look forward to doing it.
What makes you qualified to serve on the Anchorage Assembly?
Six years ago I brought over 30 years as a business owner and 20 years of community experience in local governing to the job of the Assembly. I promised to focus on the work and not the politics. I did that. I enjoy the work. I’m good at the work. Experience matters. Decades of involvement with local government on the other side of the dais helps me understand the challenges and opportunities. I know and work well with the people involved. I also learned to focus on problem solving, not political posturing. Good problem solving requires listening generously to all and recognizing we all have blind spots. I make an effort to reach out to people and groups with diverse viewpoints. I work well with all of the other Assembly members. I work well with the mayor and his team. Most importantly, I work well with the community. Together, we are getting things done.
What is the most important problem facing Anchorage? How would you address it?
Dock failure at the Port of Alaska looms as the biggest threat. I have supported the years of lawsuits that led to the successful case against MARAD to repair the work they mismanaged. I stay in touch with the Port users to make sure we are moving in a way that works for them. There was not a common path a few years ago. We are moving together now. We are near completion of the petroleum/cement terminal. The Assembly and the mayor are united in efforts to find funding to fix the Port.
What is the most important problem facing your district? How would you address it?
Salient citywide problems like homelessness, crime, and property taxes are also South Anchorage problems. More specific to South Anchorage are the threat of wildfire, drainage problems, upgrading neighborhood roads and overloaded trailheads. I championed making life/safety roads an areawide function leading to Mountain Air as a new safety road. That will lead to another route to Bear Valley. I am working through the Hillside Resiliency Committee and others on these challenges. There is a good partnership with our local legislators and Assembly members preparing for the federal infrastructure funds. Hillside-focused efforts on stormwater were paused while an effort to look citywide was beginning. With that effort stalled, we’ll look again at Hillside solutions. Increased use of Chugach State Park puts pressure on neighborhoods that are not equipped to handle it. Much of the boundary with the Park is not in the Anchorage Parks and Rec Service Area, limiting the work we can do.
What is your vision of the role of local government in Anchorage?
In the largest sense, local government should provide a foundation for residents to prosper, to find happiness and to build the lives they choose. To do that, we join together to police ourselves, to provide emergency services, significant infrastructure like our transportation system, schools and parks. There is a lot of acceptance that these are reasonable. Where we get in trouble is at the margins. How much of those things do we need? Should we go beyond the basics and make Anchorage a really nice place to “Live, work, play and stay?” Or should we keep it simple so we are just a cheap place to sleep? We need to play to our strengths and make Anchorage a unique and exceptional place to be, or people will go elsewhere. We have seen over the past few years voters are willing to invest in improving Anchorage when they pass our various bonds, including school repairs, park upgrades, new trails and streets that work for cars and also for pedestrians and cyclists.
Rate Dave Bronson’s performance as mayor. Explain, with specific examples.
It was a rough start, but I see better coordination now and I expect the mayor and Assembly to do great things in the future. Building a new administration is always a challenge. Mayor Bronson came to the job with no experience with governing. That led to stumbles and challenges working with the Assembly. Our system of government is designed with checks and balances between the executive branch and the legislative branch, which creates a natural tension that seems to have been a surprise. Where we have common goals, we are working well together. We are aligned on the Port. We share support for our police. Notably, the mayor’s emphasis on using MOA resources to address homelessness is new and needed. We are working together to follow the path we all agreed to.
Rate the performance of the current Assembly. Explain, with specific examples.
We are eleven very different individuals who have learned to work together. We have managed to get things done despite a very wide span of viewpoints on any issue. The tools of governing are ordinances and resolutions. Anything that gets on our agenda comes from at most three members or the mayor. In general, I have seen that members are open to discussing their proposals and improving them – even when the original proposal will likely get enough votes to pass. There is a willingness to continue working for a better result. Despite significant challenges like the ongoing state recession, the decrease in state revenue-sharing, the earthquake and the pandemic, this Assembly has managed to accomplish a lot.
What’s your vision for improving and diversifying Anchorage’s economy?
Economic improvements and diversification will come from creative people building and growing their businesses. The MOA can help by removing barriers. Those include working to get more housing, increasing child care capacity and playing to our strength as a great place to live in Alaska. I’m a member of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation’s board (AEDC) and share their vision of a movement called “Live. Work. Play.” This goes beyond the traditional economic development model and responds to a shift in paradigm — people are no longer forced to go where the jobs are, instead they are choosing places based on where they want to live and the jobs are following them. The pandemic increased the truth in this concept. A particularly interesting, and cheap, toehold for business is the proposed “Long Trail.” Connecting Seward to Fairbanks, it would be like the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails that attract millions.
What do you see as the most effective strategies to address homelessness in Anchorage going forward?
Everyone on the street has a different story making strategies to decrease homelessness very complex. Until a couple years ago, the MOA left the challenge to nonprofits and faith based organizations. That wasn’t working. Mayor Bronson made this a priority and supports putting city money towards the effort. I am a member of the group working with the mayor that developed a path forward for a MOA role in the homeless system. That includes buying hotels for people with medically complex problems, for workforce housing and for supportive housing. We are helping to reactivate an alcohol recovery site. We are looking for a place for elders and vulnerable groups and a new low-barrier navigation center. We are moving forward now on all of these. They will make a difference. We aren’t doing it alone. This is in collaboration with generous businesses and organizations like Rasmuson Foundation, Chugach Alaska, Calista, Weidner Apartment Homes, Providence Hospital, Doyon and others.
What’s your assessment of Anchorage’s transportation infrastructure? How would you improve it?
I get frustrated at every red light but the reality is, Anchorage has rare and light rush hour traffic. We can’t build our way out of the congestion. We have to try other things. I have worked over many years to move our system to accommodate better walking, biking and bus riding. We have come a long way over the years. Now “complete streets” are the default. Less cars on the road benefits the whole system. Building wider, faster roads is expensive and maintaining them is a burden. We have made large changes that have helped, like the Tudor/Lake Otis intersection and MLK extension. We need to make a decision soon on the Highway-to-Highway connection as Fairview is languishing with the uncertainty. I serve on the policy committee that allocates our federal transportation funds. A new system for ranking projects was a long-term project that passed in December. That will direct more funds to projects that implement the broad goals of our plans.
Does the city do a good job of running municipal elections? Would you push for changes? Explain.
We have a good elections system and voting at home is popular. Every year I have been on the Assembly, the Elections Commission has recommended improvements. We made a long list of improvements to the system in January. At our most recent Assembly meeting, we honored the election workers and in a joint statement, the chair and the mayor stood in support of the changes and outlined what they are doing to implement them. We need to continue to coax the state to clean up the voter registration list. I recommended we require out-of-state voters to request a ballot instead of automatically receiving one in the mail. That did not pass this year but should still be reconsidered. As we learn over the years, we will continue to make changes.
The past two years have been marked by increased civic discord in Anchorage. How would you improve the quality of civic discourse in the city?
Civic discord is a predictable outcome of a pandemic. As the pandemic wanes and the stresses it caused dissipate, we’ll see more calm and effective communication. At the top of my notes for every meeting, I write “listen generously.” I try to hear the message behind the anger and I am respectful to all who participate. Over the past couple years, I have worked with people who came out swinging. Instead of pushing them away, I pulled them closer. As they learn more about how the city works and how they can be effective in making change, the anger has decreased, they are a pleasure to work with and are effective. Anchorage is better for their participation.
Do you acknowledge the results of the 2020 presidential election? Also, what are your thoughts on what took place on Jan. 6, 2021 in the U.S. Capitol?
President Biden won. The attack on the Capitol was tragically wrong.
What’s one thing that makes you hopeful about Anchorage’s future?
Anchorage is an amazing place to live. Embraced by the mountains and the Inlet is a city with an abundance of ways to enjoy life. Our trail network and parks are far beyond what most cities have. We have universities, a nightlife, a great diversity of people and a long history. While we have challenges, they are solvable and not as extreme as most hub cities. As the Lower 48 burns all summer and suffers in heat, Anchorage looks like a good bet for more growth as people who can work anywhere search for a great place to live. Signs of confidence abound. The $200 million commitment just announced by FedEx, the impressive plans for downtown by Peach Investments and the 6th Avenue Hotel will transform the area. Our future is bright!
What other important issue would you like to discuss?
Is Anchorage better off now than it was 6 years ago? We moved past the SAP debacle. We rebuilt the police force and have lower crime rates. We overhauled our land use and building codes to help increase housing. We modernized permitting to make it fast and efficient. We sold ML&P and used the funds to spin off property tax relief. We diversified our tax base. We are transforming the way we deal with the homeless. We have a clear path forward to repair and modernize the Port. The list of achievements over the past 6 years is long. This was done despite strong headwinds of the statewide recession, the collapse of revenue sharing, the earthquake and the pandemic. While these challenges hurt many businesses, others have prospered. With the return of tourists, we will see most businesses regain their footing. Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. The challenges of recent years increased my ability and all of Anchorage’s ability to bounce back and prosper.