Mat-Su mayoral race still up in the air; effects of Palmer pot ban sink in

PALMER -- Voters in Palmer, the heart of the farming stronghold that is the Matanuska Valley, apparently don't condone the commercial cultivation of one potential crop: cannabis.

There were still 129 outstanding Palmer ballots to be counted Friday, but unofficial results from Tuesday's town vote put the marijuana business ban at 318 in favor and 266 opposed.

Other cities around Alaska treated marijuana as a potential revenue source in local elections Tuesday: Fairbanks and Bethel voters approved marijuana taxes of 5 and 15 percent, respectively.

Houston's voters apparently rejected a similar ban on commercial marijuana, though a few dozen early votes remained to be counted. Both the Palmer and Houston initiatives would ban marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities and retail stores and exempt hemp.

Palmer Mayor DeLena Johnson said Wednesday she's more worried about the spread of "flashing neon marijuana signs" and shops a stone's throw from Palmer landmarks like the Alaska State Fair than any future tax revenue losses.

Palmer covers only about 5.5 square miles, a small footprint that runs roughly from the fairgrounds to Arctic Boulevard and Palmer High School to the Matanuska River.

If the vote holds, Palmer will be the only part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough with a ban on commercial marijuana.


"Someone that wants to do marijuana sales will try to get as close to a population center as they can," Johnson said. "If there's no competition within the city, then they will establish the business as close as they can to the city limits, and it is going to be something we won't be able to deal with."

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly is in the early stages of developing local regulations to govern areas like taxation and land use aspects of cannabis. Johnson serves on a 17-member committee tasked with developing recommendations.

Palmer residents supported legalization when Alaska voters approved Ballot Measure 2 last fall.

Supporters of the commercial ban say they oppose the legal sale of marijuana and implicit endorsement of substance abuse, even if brings in tax revenues. Opponents say the Valley already hosts a thriving underground market and legal commercial operations would bring marijuana use into the light.

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss had a hand in both city initiatives. He was the alternate sponsor of the Palmer initiative and connected the sponsor of the Houston measure with the group that drafted initiative language for both.

A tight mayoral race

As of Wednesday, DeVilbiss and Assembly Member Vern Halter were nearly in a dead heat in the race for mayor. Halter clung to a 179-vote lead for the mayor's seat with up to 2,314 absentee, questioned and special needs ballots still to be counted.

At least one Assembly race -- District 7, from Meadow Lakes to Trapper Creek -- also hung in the balance Wednesday with Doyle Holmes leading Randall Kowalke by just 52 votes. At least one other Assembly race is also close.

It could be more than 10 days before results are finalized. Mat-Su elections officials started "canvassing" the outstanding ballots Wednesday -- making sure that people got the ballots they were supposed to, or that they were registered in the district they voted in, borough clerk Lonnie McKechnie said. It could be late next week or early the week of Oct. 19 before that's done, McKechnie said. Then the actual count by a review board will be quick, she said.

The election is scheduled to be certified on Oct. 20.

The Alaska Republican Assembly was not happy with the result of the preliminary results of the mayor's race, according to a Facebook post from president Daniel Hamm.

"The Matsu Borough has the largest concentration of Republicans in Alaska but just took a horrible pounding with taxpayer money donated to the minority Democratic Party via closed shop public unions," Hamm wrote.

Saying DeVilbiss should have won in a landslide, he continued that the unions also "trounced" a ballot initiative to move October's local elections into November to coincide with the general election "because they can dominate a low 10-13% voter turnout with an off-cycle election date."

The borough election turnout was just under 14 percent.

Phil Christiansen voted Tuesday at the Greater Palmer fire station just off Palmer-Fishhook Road at the gateway to Hatcher Pass. Christiansen, an appliance technician, said he'd just gotten off work.

He voted for Halter because the Assembly member's run "just seemed a little less campaign-y," Christiansen said outside the station Tuesday evening. "Don't sell me on what you're doing. Convince me."

He also wrote in his father for a contested school board seat, as he usually does when he doesn't know enough about either candidate to decide, he said.

Zaz Hollander

Zaz Hollander is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su and is currently an ADN local news editor and reporter. She covers breaking news, the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at