At election forum, Bristol Bay candidates face questions about borough policies

Oct 29, 2019

The Bristol Bay Borough's municipal election is Nov. 5, 2019. Absentee and early voting continues through Nov. 4. 

Bristol Bay Borough, July 2019.
Credit Sage Smiley/KDLG

Bristol Bay Borough is heading to the polls for its local general election on November 5.

Students from the Bristol Bay Borough School District hosted an election forum on Monday, featuring the three candidates running for two open seats on the borough assembly. Both seats are three-year terms. Pete Caruso and Shelby Boothe are up for re-election. Gene Sanderson is a newcomer to borough politics.  

Listen to the full candidates’ forum here.

Elise Adams, Carly Eldridge, Ashlyn Young, and Connor Tiffany moderated the discussion. They began by allowing the candidates two minutes each to introduce themselves. The students then posed five questions about their candidacies and what they would focus on as part of the assembly.

The most contentious issue on the ballot is the proposed 1.5% tax on processed fish. That revenue would go towards funding updates to the borough’s outdated wastewater system. When asked to explain the borough's situation, Caruso said he wasn’t convinced of the urgency for sewer updates.

“I personally am not convinced that the wastewater system is in dire straits. It does need some fixing. And that’s the reason why the 1.5% fish tax is being put on the ballot,” he said.

Caruso pointed out that money from the tax could go to other programs in the future, though he didn’t specify which ones.

Both Boothe and Sanderson voiced stronger concern about the sewer system, which is strained in the summer months when the borough’s population balloons with the influx of seasonal workers. However, Sanderson said the assembly did need to reconsider how much they were planning to spend on updates and repairs.

Funding is often tight for rural schools, like the Bristol Bay Borough school in Naknek. The moderators cited this reality when they asked whether the candidates expected the borough to request that the school cut programs due to a lack of funding. Boothe said that as state education funding has decreased, the borough has increased its support. He doesn’t think that will change.

“We were able to do that legally because the value of the borough assessment has increased pretty dramatically over the last five or six years as the fishing industry has bloomed,” he said.

Caruso replied that school programs were central to the community, while Sanderson said he didn’t know enough about the borough’s financial relationship to the school to answer.

The moderators also asked what improvements the candidates would spearhead if elected. Boothe said he would concentrate on infrastructure improvements. Caruso said the assembly should focus on more extracurriculars for kids and amenities for the community, like a movie theater or bowling alley. Sanderson also voiced concern about the community losing residents.

“We’re losing people in this borough faster than we’re gaining," he said. "There’s no doubt about that. I think we’re going to be shocked when we get the results of the census that’s coming up. There’s got to be some way to keep people here.”

Caruso is at the end of his first term with the assembly. He came to the borough in 1978 and worked as the school’s maintenance director for 20 years and was involved in the school’s basketball and wrestling programs as well. Boothe has served on the assembly for 15 years and is currently on the finance committee. He came to the area in 1988 and worked as the borough’s public works director. Sanderson was born at the military base in King Salmon and moved to Anchorage with his family as a teenager. He worked at a Caterpillar dealer for three decades. After retiring, he decided to move back to Naknek, and ran the Delta Western plant for almost six years. 

The school board candidate on the ballot is incumbent Sheri Onate, who is running unopposed for the three-year seat.

Early and absentee voting will continue through Nov. 4. Polls open on Nov. 5 at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200