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Past lawsuit between candidates adds tension to Valley Assembly race

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 30, 2015

WASILLA -- Two Willow residents vying to represent the Susitna Valley and part of Meadow Lakes on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly disagree on the issues. But they've also butted heads in court.

Either Randall Kowalke or Doyle Holmes will replace outgoing Assembly member Vern Halter, a candidate for borough mayor who's prevented by term limits from running again.

Holmes, 78, owns the Willow True Value hardware store and already served several terms on the Assembly, most recently in the late 1990s. His outspoken personality sometimes got him sideways with the public: A 1987 recall attempt was avoided only by a strong showing in his home precinct.

Kowalke, 68, is a retired business executive with experience in wood products, oil and telecommunications who spent the last five or six years involved in Willow community activities. He has not served in an elected municipal capacity in Alaska.

Holmes describes himself as an experienced conservative with deep local roots. He said his top priorities are dealing with "excessive taxation, excessive regulation … the attack on private property rights and the exploding senior population."

Kowalke describes himself as a veteran businessman who's dealt with all levels of government. His top priorities are developing the borough port, "managing budgetary problems I'm expecting as the result of a state lack of revenue … and continued build-out of the emergency services/fire network."

Perhaps the defining issue of the campaign has been a recent tax increase to pay for fire service that Halter added during the budget process.

Even though Holmes chairs the three-person board that supervises Willow's fire service area, he said that he'd rather see a local vote first and the fire department needs more personnel before it needs more money. He said he'd work to get rid of a 29.9-hour cap on paid on-call responders that's hampering recruiting efforts.

Kowalke supports the property tax mill rate increase to modernize the fire department and construction of three new warm-storage fire stations using state grant money to modernize the fire department. He said one Willow resident told him a new fire station dropped his homeowner's insurance premium by more than $350.

Conflict outside the issues

The candidates share one commonality that also reflects their dislike for one another: both were involved in a 2011 lawsuit filed by Kowalke.

Kowalke and his wife filed the civil lawsuit against Willow Area Seniors Inc., the nonprofit that operates Willow senior housing center where the couple lived, as well as the nonprofit's housing director and Holmes, its treasurer.

The suit, which Kowalke says he was forced to bring by prolonged inaction on complaints, alleged unsafe arsenic levels in drinking water, the presence of a registered sex offender in another unit and delayed repairs and maintenance including snow removal. It also claimed Holmes put the Kowalkes in fear of "imminent harm" and committed defamation and slander -- together with the housing director -- by stating that Kowalke abuses his wife, suffers from mental illness and "is a pervert, or sexual deviant," according to the complaint.

A Palmer Superior Court judge eventually dismissed most of the charges with prejudice except for the defamatory comments and a claim about muddy water. Willow Seniors paid a $50,000 settlement, according to a check stub copy provided by Kowalke.

It was Holmes, not Kowalke, who brought up the lawsuit during a few recent candidate forums in the Valley. A campaign flier sent to voters by the Holmes campaign also describes Holmes as "feisty & opinionated, but no lawsuits."

Holmes was involved, however, in a 2013 court proceeding involving an elderly Willow couple who filed for protection from financial abuse.

Beverly and Dave Walker gave Holmes power of attorney after they lost their home in a fire and moved into senior housing, according to a transcript of a court hearing on file at Palmer courthouse. They trusted Holmes because they bought wood from him for 35 years, Beverly Walker said during the June 2013 emergency hearing.

A representative filed for protection from financial abuse on Walker's behalf, citing "fear and intimidation" and requesting a short-term protective order as well as a long-term order, alleging Holmes had threatened the couple to sign over a $150,000 insurance check.

The representative, Jean Calhoun of Mat-Su Services for Children and Adults, did not return several calls for comment. The couple's daughter could not be reached for comment.

Judge Vanessa White ordered Holmes to turn the check over to Calhoun but rejected the protective orders because of "insufficient evidence" that Beverly Walker required protection, according to the hearing transcript. The Walkers revoked power of attorney for Holmes the same month.

Holmes said this week that the proceeding was only the result of his trying to help the Walkers when no one else would.

He said he asked for limited power of attorney to help them pay off the couple's reverse mortgage with the insurance money so they didn't lose their property.

"Once the check showed up then all of a sudden, as is standard procedure in any case with money, all the leeches showed up," he said. There were eight to 10 people, including family members, "trying to get that check," Holmes said.

He said it would have been impossible for him to sign the money over to himself because he set up the check to require three signatures: those of both Walkers and a representative of the mortgage company.

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