Two candidates want a chance to lead the Northwest Arctic Borough into the future and they couldn't be more different in some ways. But when asked what the defining issue was for the borough in coming years, their answer was exactly the same: affordable energy.
On Tuesday, voters will choose between relative newcomer to public office, borough assemblyman Patrick Savok, and his uncle, Reggie Joule, who has been the area's state representative for the past 16 years. Savok said he isn't daunted by his elder relative's political clout. Instead, he says, people in the area see him as a fresh face and someone who is energized about solving some of the area's staggering cost-of-living challenges.
"No one my age is in charge," Savok said. "I know that we need a change." Savok has sat on the borough assembly since 2010 and is the Budget and Audit Finance Chairman.
Joule, on the other hand, said his experience working as the area's representative brings with it a wealth of knowledge about the huge issues faced by the borough, including how to keep pace with the ever-changing Arctic and the development and expansion that is taking place there. Joule served on the Northern Waters Task Force of the Alaska State Legislature and was recently appointed to the Arctic Policy Commission, which is taking over that task force's challenge of leading Alaska's Arctic forward with purpose.
"I think it's time Alaska gets to say its piece in how the Arctic gets developed," Joule said.
Beyond their differences, both candidates identified the cost of heating the average home in the Northwest Arctic Borough as the single largest challenge they face. Joule said some residents in the area are paying $500-$800 a month to heat their homes in the winter, during a time of year when many are unemployed.
"They have to worry about heating their homes or buying food," he said. "So I'm looking at how we can impact those things in a positive way. It's difficult and I think that's putting it mildly."
How they plan to move toward a solution varies somewhat, however. Joule said new energy sources and finding partnerships to develop those resources is the key, while Savok, who is the former treasurer of the Kotzebue Electric Association, said the only way to lower the cost of fuel for everyone in the short
term is to bring all the communities and industries of the area and put in one big, bulk order that would hopefully be cheaper than what is currently being charged.
"The cost of living is outrageous," Savok said. "The only way we are going to get cheaper fuel is if we organize a large-scale, multiagency purchase. We can accomplish that."
Savok's professional background includes his current position with the Department of Transportation building roads, including the recently completed Front Street project in Kotzebue. He's a lifelong Kotzebue resident with five children, and said he's committed to making positive changes for his community. His travels to the rural communities have given him insight into the fact that some people feel a disconnect between their community and the borough.
"I'm going to strive to involve our communities more when it comes to creating policy," he said.
Similarly, Joule said partnerships between agencies are the way to help communities grow.
"We need to plan on a couple of levels -- one to maintain and to promote the communities and what they are wanting to see for their individual communities and growth, and on a regional level, interacting with different entities. We work best when we form partnerships and support each other's positions."
Polls open at 8 a.m. on Tuesday throughout the borough and close at 8 p.m.
This article first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.