With final election results in, a shakeup in Mat-Su Borough

PALMER -- Nearly two weeks after local polls closed, a tally of outstanding ballots shows that assemblyman and Willow dog musher Vern Halter has defeated incumbent Larry DeVilbiss to become the next mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Meanwhile, retired business executive Randall Kowalke surged ahead to win Halter's soon-to-be-vacated borough Assembly seat against hardware store owner Doyle Holmes, according to an unofficial count of absentee and questioned ballots that finished early Monday afternoon.

Wins by both Halter and Kowalke amount to a setback for Valley conservatives and a potential boon for Susitna Valley interests.

Holmes isn't going down without a fight: He failed in one challenge of borough election procedures over the weekend and said Monday he's considering another.

Halter's win marks the first time in recent memory that a Susitna Valley resident will hold the mayor's seat, a largely ceremonial position except for the line-item veto power.

Halter led DeVilbiss by 189 votes when polls closed in the Valley on Oct. 6. He picked up several hundred more to win by 451, according to Monday's count.

DeVilbiss, a former state agriculture director and Lazy Mountain farmer who now lives in Palmer, began serving as mayor in 2011.

He plans to help his wife move family members from Scotland and devote time to an ongoing Bible translation project -- ramping off a background in linguistics and cross-cultural communication -- that's taken him to Siberia and now will involve South America.

Will he miss politics and meetings every night?

"Not at all," DeVilbiss said Monday afternoon by phone. "I can't think of any night of the week I won't be happy to be reading a book or whatever."

Kowalke had trailed Holmes by 52 votes when polls closed. He picked up enough votes to win by 33, according to the result of a vote count completed just before noon by a two-person board. Both men are from Willow and waged a sometimes bitter campaign.

Kowalke said Monday that he had remained "very very cautiously optimistic" about his chances before Monday after he broke down the precinct-by-precinct voting patterns.

He figured he'd do well in Talkeetna but also gained ground in Willow, he said. "It was an 85 vote turnaround, so that's a fairly high percentage of the votes that were out there."

The District 7 Assembly seat represents northern parts of the borough, from Meadow Lakes to Trapper Creek including Willow and Talkeetna.

The borough's canvassing process to confirm voter legitimacy on as many as 2,300-plus absentee and questioned ballots started Oct. 7, the day after local elections.

A two-person review board began the actual count Monday morning and wrapped up about midday.

The Assembly vote count is under fire from the 78-year-old Holmes, an outspoken veteran of Valley politics.

Holmes, who already lost a vote-counting challenge filed Friday, said he's considering another challenge based on what he called "a significant deviation from the election procedures."

A voting machine in Talkeetna malfunctioned on election night, so the borough clerk sent the Houston clerk to pick up ballots and then ran them through a different machine after meeting the clerk with the ballots in Houston. Holmes said the votes should have been counted by the Canvass Board.

"I lost by 33 votes," Holmes said by phone Monday afternoon. "Anybody who believes that has got to believe in the Tooth Fairy."

He said there's no way to guarantee the ballots voters put into the Talkeetna machine were the same that arrived at borough headquarters in Palmer.

Kowalke said at this point Holmes would need to get a court injunction to stop his swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday.

Though the mayor and Assembly positions are nonpartisan, both Halter and Kowalke are considered moderates, especially in comparison to self-described conservatives DeVilbiss and Holmes, a former Assembly member whose last term ended in the late 1990s.

In the weeks leading up to elections, DeVilbiss secured several donations from the Alaska Republican Party and one from former Gov. Sean Parnell.

Holmes on Friday filed a handwritten challenge to the borough's ballot-counting process, focused particularly on plans to remove ballots from security envelopes Saturday to get them ready for counting Monday.

Borough clerk Lonnie McKechnie on Thursday sent candidates an email telling them that ballots would be placed in tamper-proof envelopes, assuring their security during that three-day period. McKechnie also reminded candidates they could be present during the process or send an assigned observer.

Holmes on Friday sent McKechnie an email -- he also sent it to the borough mayor's email address and DeVilbiss' personal account -- about his concerns, saying he wasn't convinced "your procedures" would ensure ballot integrity.

He filed his challenge that day.

"I have grave concerns that envelopes will be opened tomorrow and (ballots) not be counted until Monday," Holmes wrote. "I understand the clerk is convinced she can guarantee security. I am not. If the ballots are opened on Sat they should be counted on Sat …"

The borough Canvass Board spent 25 minutes Saturday morning talking about the challenge before rejecting it, according to a letter sent to Holmes.

"The challenge does not pertain to any voter being not qualified, disqualified, or having voted in the same election," states the letter, signed by McKechnie and board member Geraldine Keeling.

The ballots "remain under the control" of the board through Monday and security and storage hasn't changed since Oct. 7, the letter continued. "The Board remains convinced that the security and integrity of the ballots is preserved."