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Mat-Su mayor's race pits farmer against musher as region grapples with growth

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

WASILLA -- The next mayor of Alaska's fastest-growing region faces issues that include the state's worst teacher-student ratio and fastest-growing senior population in a place with little major industry that's largely supported by property tax payments.

Local elections will be held Oct. 6 in the Valley.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough mayor's race pits incumbent Larry DeVilbiss, 71, a former Alaska Division of Agriculture director who farms cattle and carrots on Lazy Mountain, against 66-year-old challenger Vern Halter, a former magistrate and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran with a Willow dog tour business.

Lesser-known contender Rosemary Vavrin, a 70-year-old former teacher and senior advocate working on public transportation issues, is also running for the position. Vavrin, speaking at a recent AARP forum, acknowledged she had few specifics about the issues facing the borough but promised to get up to speed quickly.

The Mat-Su mayor's position is largely ceremonial except for veto powers, on which DeVilbiss leaned heavily after coming into office in a 2011 special election and a re-election the next year.

The borough faces difficult times as officials struggle to develop new industry even as the state's fiscal crisis threatens local revenue-sharing dollars. DeVilbiss and Halter say they support the completion of a railroad spur to the borough's port at Point MacKenzie to generate economic development.

Halter was leading the fundraising race, with about $39,000 raised -- $15,000 of it his own money -- as of early September, when candidates filed 30-day reports with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. DeVilbiss said he raised about $17,400, including $67 of his own cash.

If Halter prevails, he'll be the first resident of the Susitna Valley to serve in that position in recent memory, a sign of the recent growth of the sprawling area that's drawing new residents to towns like Willow and Talkeetna, traditionally off-the-grid spots where residents can escape civilization but more recently a draw even for Anchorage commuters, especially in the southern reaches of the valley.

But both DeVilbiss and Halter rejected the idea the election reflects a borough split between the southern, more urbanized Matanuska Valley and the more sparsely populated Su Valley.

"I don't see it that way," DeVilbiss said. "You could make it out to be between the dogs and the bulls too."

Instead, both describe their differences in more ideological terms.

"It highlights a different style of leadership and openness, inclusiveness," Halter said. "It's not a regional, not a geographic issue at all … We're talking about schools and roads and issues that are common to people to matter where they are in the borough."

DeVilbiss said the actions of the borough Assembly by the end of Halter's first term as Assemblyman three years ago are a better indicator of the difference between him and his opponent. He said that Assembly stymied development through a logging moratorium, lack of success with a downhill ski resort at Hatcher Pass and a tough power plant ordinance that saw Matanuska Electric Association site a new power plant outside the borough at Eklutna.

Halter said those decisions stemmed from "very poor leadership" by the mayor and said he would have handled the MEA plant issue differently by basing the power plant ordinance on those from Montana or Wyoming instead of the more restrictive model of California, as the borough's was. He credited the Assembly at the time with getting major road and school bonds on the ballot as well as the development of facilities at Government Peak Recreation Area.

Asked about priorities, both men listed education, roads and emergency services.

Halter said his specific goals include reducing classroom overcrowding, pushing for state funding to finish the Parks Highway west of Wasilla and safety improvements on Knik-Goose Bay Road. DeVilbiss backs using state right-of-way acquisition money to start building roads at Point MacKenzie in advance of a possible liquefied natural gas industry at the port as well as a bridge across Knik Arm.

The two disagree, however, on the use of the mayoral veto pen.

DeVilbiss has become known in some circles as the "veto mayor" -- during the last budget process alone he vetoed seven items; the Assembly overrode all but one.

"I don't mind that label," he said. "Obviously it's one of the powers we use. I get beat up on it a little bit."

DeVilbiss said the reasons behind his vetoes varied, ranging from problems with faulty language to the need for more public debate on an issue. He did withdraw one veto involving right-of-way acquisition for a Bogard Road project.

Halter said the mayor's veto power is one that "should be used wisely. I'm not saying I won't issue a veto. I am saying some of the vetoes were bad public policy for the borough."

He criticized DeVilbiss' vetoes on Bogard Road as well as money for a Mat-Su sexual assault response to conduct exams in the Valley so victims don't have to drive to Anchorage.

Other races

Early and absentee voting is already underway in Mat-Su. Along with the mayor's race, there is one contested school board seat and three open Assembly seats up for election:

• District 3, representing a broad area between Palmer and Wasilla. Mat-Su College student Maria Serrano faces retired labor relations negotiator and farrier George McKee.

• District 6, representing neighborhoods north of Wasilla and along the Talkeetna Mountains. Incumbent Barbara Doty, a Wasilla family physician and business owner, faces challenger Robert Doyle, a former Mat-Su chief schools administrator and Matanuska Electric Association board member.

• District 7, representing parts of the Susitna Valley and Meadow Lakes. This is the seat vacated by Halter. Two Willow residents are vying to fill it: retired business executive Randall Kowalke and former Assembly member and hardware store owner Doyle Holmes.

Borough voters will also decide two ballot propositions: moving borough elections from October to the general election in early November and electing school board members by district.

In the cities, five candidates are running for two open city council positions in Palmer and three people are running for one open position in Houston. There is one contested race in Wasilla between incumbent Alvah C. "Clark" Buswell and Tim Burney.

Residents in Palmer and Houston will also vote on an initiative that would ban commercial marijuana facilities.

Houston voters will also decide on a 1 percent sales tax increase from 2 to 3 percent. Wasilla voters will decide whether to maintain a 3 percent sales tax rate or allow it to drop to 2 percent after funding goals have been met for a new library.

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