Palmer leans toward ban on pot businesses; Mat-Su mayor's race too close to call

PALMER -- Palmer residents apparently voted to ban commercial marijuana operations, according to early municipal election results, despite residents having voted in favor of legalizing pot when the issue came to a statewide vote last fall.

The other big race in Tuesday's elections here, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough mayor, was too close to call even as a dramatic night ended with results from Talkeetna delayed by a mechanical glitch and hand-delivered by municipal clerks -- and more than 2,000 outstanding ballots yet to be counted.

Palmer residents who voted Tuesday came in 318 to 266 in favor of the marijuana business ban, according to unofficial results posted on the city's website. But that tally doesn't include 129 early, questioned, special needs and absentee ballots to be counted Friday, according to the city clerk's office.

Houston voters were defeating a similar ban by a vote of 131 to 100, though 34 early votes remained to be counted. Both initiatives would ban marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities and retail stores.

Meanwhile, in the mayor's race, Willow dog musher and Assemblyman Vern Halter and incumbent Larry DeVilbiss, a Lazy Mountain farmer and former Alaska Division of Agriculture director, were neck and neck.

As of 11:30 p.m., preliminary election results gave Halter a 179-vote lead over DeVilbiss, mayor of the fast-growing borough since 2011.

A third candidate, former teacher and senior advocate Rosemary Vavrin, trailed both.


The votes from Talkeetna emerged several hours after other precincts because of a voting machine malfunction, according to borough public information officer Patty Sullivan. Clerks drove from Houston and Palmer to get the results.

Outstanding absentee and questioned ballots still remain to be counted, and all results have yet to be certified.

The 5-member borough canvass board was scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. Wednesday and begin working its way through 1,693 absentee, 604 questioned and 6 special-needs ballots cast, Sullivan said.

Voter turnout was a low 13.7 percent, with individual precincts ranging from a low of about 7 percent turnout in the Wasilla Lake precinct to 31 percent in Willow -- home to Halter, as well as a hard-fought Assembly race.

If Halter's lead holds, he'll be the first Susitna Valley resident to be mayor since at least 2001, according to the borough clerk, Lonnie McKechnie. Others at the borough say he'll be the first in their memory.

DeVilbiss has prided himself on his heavy use of the mayoral veto, one of the few powers granted to the Mat-Su mayor, commonly viewed as a fairly ceremonial position. During the recent budget setting cycle, DeVilbiss submitted seven vetoes, all but one squelched by the Assembly.

DeVilbiss collected nearly $26,400, with recent donations from former Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Republican Party, according to his campaign's Alaska Public Offices Commission? filings.

Halter raised more than $58,000 during the campaign, some $15,000 of it his own money, according to APOC filings. He got heavy support from several unions. Halter, who is leaving the Assembly because of term limits, touted himself as a moderate who wouldn't make such heavy use of mayoral vetoes.

Three contested Assembly races were also being decided Tuesday night. Retired labor relations negotiator George McKee was defeating Mat-Su College student Maria Serrano in District 3 to represent a broad area between Palmer and Wasilla.

In Palmer-area District 6, incumbent family physician Barb Doty was defeating former schools administrator Bob Doyle.

In District 7, which runs from Meadow Lakes to Trapper Creek, former Assemblyman Doyle Holmes held a 52-vote lead over retired business executive Randall Kowalke. That race was to decide the fate of the seat Halter holds now and late Tuesday was also too close to call.

Borough voters defeated an initiative to move borough elections from October to the general election in early November but roundly backed another one to elect school board members by district.

In Palmer, city council candidate Pete LaFrance led and incumbent Richard Best was tied with Kenni M. "Psenak" Linden. Five people ran for the two open seats. The 129 uncounted ballots could affect those races too.

In Wasilla, voters rejected a 3 percent sales tax rate and voted to drop to 2 percent after funding goals have been met for a new library. On the city council, challenger Tim Burney unseated incumbent Alvah C. Buswell III by a wide margin.

Mat-Su school board member Kelsey Trimmer was holding onto his seat against challenger Wade Long.

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