Nikiski resident Ray Southwell, an opponent of the ballot measure to create a Law Enforcement Service Area (LESA) in Nikiski, presented his argument against the plan at the Nikiski Recreation Center on Saturday morning. Approximately 30 people listened to Southwell’s presentation and engaged in questions and debate afterwards.
For the occasion, Southwell wore a tie showing Looney Tunes character Sylvester the cat chasing Tweety Bird, symbolizing what he said was the perception of himself as “a loony” by those on the other side of the contentious issue, as well as the attitude of fear which he claimed underlies support for the LESA proposal.
“We know realistically what happens if Sylvester catches Tweety Bird: he’ll get eaten,” Southwell said. “But it never happens. Nikiski’s that way. We’re frightened like Tweety Bird, and we’re running away from Sylvester, and our only answer is: more police! I don’t agree.”
The proposed Law Enforcement Service Area would follow the geographical boundaries of the existing Nikiski Fire Service area, which according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough website contains 6,000 square miles extending across the Cook Inlet, and approximately 5,500 people, mostly concentrated in Nikiski.
The proposal would create a 5 member elected group — the service area board — to advise the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on how to increase law enforcement in this area, which is currently served by Alaska State Troopers stationed in Soldotna. Nikiski voters will decide whether to create the LESA with a ballot measure in the October 6 election.
Nikiski’s Borough Assembly representative Wayne Ogle introduced an ordinance proposing the LESA at a Borough Assembly meeting on June 16, after the proposal was, according to the ordinance, unanimously recommended by the Nikiski Community Council on Jan. 26.
Southwell pointed out that both the Nikiski Community Council and the committee convened to study the crime problem were unelected volunteer groups, and said the ordinance was “badly-written” and created hastily in order to be ready for the Oct. 6 ballot.
If established, the LESA service area board will advise the Borough Assembly to vote for one of two options, according to the LESA ordinance: “… either the creation of a borough police department for the Nikiski LESA, or that the borough shall enter into a contract with an existing law enforcement agency.”
Southwell said that the contract option would be the Assembly’s inevitable decision.
“Political decisions are made for economic reasons, because economic forces control us all,” Southwell said in an interview following his presentation. “The bottom line is that … a police force is going to bring liability to the entire Borough. The Borough Assembly will not go for that. They’ll go to a contract because they have to. The Borough Assembly will always look at the financial situation that might threaten the Borough.”
Southwell said the contract solution would remove law enforcement from local control and drew an analogy with Central Peninsula Hospital, which operates as a non-profit corporation working under contract with the Borough.
Southwell referred again to economic forces in another argument against LESA: the solutions it offered would fail to deter the drug-dealing that he said was at the root of property crime in Nikiski. Southwell said establishing the LESA would lead to more convictions and arrests of drug addicts — whose condition, he said, couldn’t actually be changed by punishment — while failing to reduce the population of drug dealers, who he claimed would be replaced by new dealers once they were arrested.
“Supply always fills the demand when the profit margin is great,” Southwell said.
During the question and answer session that followed the presentation, several listeners asked what Southwell would consider a more effective way to keep drugs out of Nikiski. Southwell had previously spoken of establishing a group he called Deacons for Defense, which at Saturday’s meeting he claimed could reduce the drug demand by identifying and shaming recreational drug users — a class which he said were distinguishable from addicts by the fact that their behavior could be changed.
Southwell tried to defer questions about Deacons for Defense, saying he had held the meeting to discuss specifically “the thing we’re going to vote on October 6.” Southwell said he plans to organize Deacons for Defense whether the LESA is created or not, and would present the idea separately at a future meeting he had tentatively planned in late October or early November at the Nikiski Recreation Center.
Nonetheless, the audience asked several questions about the goals and methods of Deacons for Defense. Many came from three audience members who are candidates for the service area board: Ben Carpenter, Norm Olson, and Jason Ross.
In response to a question from Ross, Southwell said his proposed group may work through a Facebook page identifying houses where drugs are sold and license plates of vehicles seen at those houses, and would also turn information over to Alaska State Troopers.
“What the troopers don’t do is investigate, and I’m suggesting that we can do the visual investigation at the street level,” Southwell said.
In an interview after the presentation, Southwell said the possibility of losing local control of law enforcement was his most pressing concern. When asked what hypothetical changes to the LESA ordinance would make it more acceptable to him, Southwell said “I think if we were assured that it was going to be truly under the service area board, that would change it. Because I’m not opposed to law enforcement. I’m opposed to government law enforcement outside the construct of local control.”
According to the LESA ordinance, the budget of the service area board must be approved by the Borough mayor, who is also given power in the ordinance to appoint “a chief law enforcement officer” for the service area from nominees submitted by the service area board.
Southwell said a preferable solution would be similar to law enforcement in the Lower 48, where policing on a county level is controlled by a locally-elected sheriff. While he said organizing something similar would be difficult under Alaska’s borough system, he would favor an alternative that kept decisions of how to bring greater law enforcement to Nikiski out of the Borough’s hands.
“That would be the change I would accept: an assurance that it (the LESA) would stay under the control of the service-area board,” Southwell said.
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.