Alaska News Nightly: March 6, 2012

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Coast Guard To Drop Charges Against Leone

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The U.S. Coast Guard dropped its charges against Lt. Lance Leone.

The Sitka-based Coast Guard aviator was facing charges of negligent homicide and destruction of government property in connection with a 2010 helicopter crash.

Leone is a U.S. Coast Guard aviator, and the sole survivor of a 2010 helicopter crash that killed three people from Air Station Sitka. He was facing charges of negligent homicide and destruction of government property.

According to Leone’s attorney, John Smith, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo decided not to send the charges on to court martial.

Smith says while it’s the end of the charges, it’s the beginning of a new chapter for Leone.

“Probably one of the most difficult things he’s going to have to do is to be able to do that thing that he loves to do again,” Smith said. “It’s been quite a while since he’s flown or piloted an aircraft, and I’m hoping that he is going to be able to go to retraining soon, pass that retraining, and look forward to a new assignment in the Coast Guard, flying and rescuing people in accordance with the Coast Guard mission.”

Smith said Ostebo’s decision, and the outcome of the charges against his client, serve as encouragement for the members of all military branches that the military’s system of justice works.

Polls Open Up For ‘Super Tuesday’

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

It’s Super Tuesday. 437 candidates are up for grabs in 10 states, including 24 in Alaska. Tonight people across the state are turning out at polling places to vote in a ‘Presidential Preference Poll’. KSKA reporter Daysha Eaton joins us from Anchorage Christian Schools, a polling place in East Anchorage.

Negotiations For New Labor Building Lease Break Down

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Mediated negotiations between the state and the owner of the Alaska Department of Labor building in Juneau have ended without a deal to extend the state’s rental agreement.

The state will soon start looking for office space for Labor Department employees.

“We weren’t able to come to terms on the Juneau Labor Building. Our plan now is to put out a competitive solicitation for replacement space for that lease,” says Vern Jones, Chief Procurement Officer with the Alaska Department of Administration, which negotiates leases on behalf of other state departments.

Jones says the main sticking point was over the length of a new deal. The owners wanted a 10-year extension, while the state wanted no more than 5-years. He says Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg wants more flexibility as the state explores its office space options in Juneau.

“Our commissioner has said all along that she wants to preserve the option of a new state office building,” Jones says.

That’s good news to members of Juneau’s legislative delegation, who have pushed for a new state-owned office complex in the Capital City.

The Labor building has been plagued by numerous structural and air quality issues in recent years, and many employees say it’s causing their lingering health problems.

Juneau Democratic Senator Dennis Egan says something had to be done to improve conditions for those workers.

“You wouldn’t believe the emails that we get from employees,” Egan says. “And it’s not two or three employees that are disgruntled and then other employees think, ‘Well, I don’t feel well either.’ There are a lot of employees that are directly affected and I applaud the administration for getting them out of there.”

If the state decides to build new office space, Egan says the delegation would like to see it located downtown, near existing state offices and the Capitol.

“It’s more convenient, it’s in the core area of government and that’s where government ought to be. Directors and financial people; people that directly relate to the legislature,” says Egan.

In the meantime, Jones expects the request for proposals for office space to go out in the next two months.

“We’ve done some preliminary work and we know that there is space available,” he says. “Maybe not all in the downtown area, but area-wide we think there is sufficient space available. So, we’re hoping for good competition.”

The state’s lease at the Labor building expires at the end of June. Jones says it’s unlikely all of the employees will be moved out by then, but the current lease allows the state to stay in the facility on a month-to-month basis.

As we reported Monday, work began over the weekend to identify and remediate any mold in Room 210 of the building. Jones says the end of negotiations between the state and owner should not affect that work, which had already been agreed to and is being paid for by the owner.

Department of Labor officials involved in the lease negotiations were not available to comment by air time. But Labor spokeswoman Beth Leschper says there are absolutely no plans to move employees outside of Juneau.

Zirkle, Baker Lead Mushers Out Of Nikolai

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Aliy Zirkle and John Baker are leading the Iditarod. The mushers left the Nikolai checkpoint at 1:50 this afternoon. Jeff King, Lance Mackey, Mitch Seavey and Hugh Neff followed out of Nikolai about an hour later. GPS currently has Zirkle running about five miles ahead of Baker on her way to the McGrath checkpoint. She is expected to arrive there sometime this evening. In recent years, top mushers have opted to stop only briefly in McGrath and push on to the Takotna checkpoint about 20 miles down the trail. That’s where many mushers take their 24-hour layover, enjoying a scenic setting and free hamburgers and pie.

Game Board Approves Bear Control Program In Middle Kuskokwim Area

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Alaska’s Board of Game voted unanimously over the weekend to establish a two-year bear control program in the middle Kuskokwim River area.  The program allows department staff to shoot bears from helicopters.

Groups React To Aerial Bear Hunting Plan

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Wildlife conservation groups are concerned by the state’s plan to shoot bears from aircraft. Valerie Connor is the conservation director at the Alaska Center for the Environment.  She says no other state allows aerial predator control of bears. And she says the plan makes it too easy for the department to over harvest the animals.

“They’re going to shoot every bear they see. That’s the program, it’s basically a bear extermination program in 540 square miles of land, so any bear coming through there will die,” Connor said.

Another proposal that passed at the January Board of Game meeting allows Department employees to shoot Brown Bears from aircraft in game unit 26b on the North Slope. The proposal is aimed at boosting Musk Ox population numbers and is scheduled to take effect this spring. Connor says both aerial predator control programs passed with very little input from the public.

But the Alaska Center for the Environment is more concerned about a proposal that would allow bear snaring. That usually involves trapping a bear’s paw in a bait bucket hanging in a tree. She says that plan is especially disturbing because it allows the public to participate in killing the bears. There is no bag limit. Connor says the proposals are pushing the state in a disturbing direction when it comes to wildlife management.

“This administration has taken wildlife management to a new low. Never before have we allowed snaring of bears, never before have we allowed killing bears from airplanes. Now suddenly, here we are we’re going to allow both of those methods in big tracks of the state,” Connor said.

The bear snaring proposal will be considered later at the Board of Game meeting. The meeting is scheduled to continue through Monday in Fairbanks.

Prince William Sound Community College Seeking New President

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

Alaska’s only accredited community college is looking for a new president.  The University of Alaska-Anchorage dismissed Doug Desorcie Monday after seven years on the job.

Investigators Recommend Court Martial For Four Ft. Wainwright Soldiers

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Another preliminary hearing has recommended court martial trials for Ft. Wainwright soldiers charged in connection with the death of a fellow Stryker Brigade soldier.

An Article 32 Hearing wrapped up yesterday for Staff Sergeant Andrew VanBockel, Sergeants Jeffrey Hurst and Adam Holcomb and Specialist Thomas Curtis.  They face charges including negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and reckless endangerment related to the October 2011 death of Private Danny Chen in Afghanistan.

Private Chen was found dead of an apparent self inflicted gunshot wound, but his family has said the Army told them he was severely hazed by fellow soldiers.  Four other Stryker soldiers are also facing charges related to Chen’s death.   The Brigade’s regional commander has final say on whether charges are forwarded to court martial. So far, charges against one of the soldiers implicated in Chen’s death, Sergeant Travis Carden, have been forwarded to general court martial.

Stryker Brigade Helps Reopen Afghanistan School

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Ft. Wainwright Stryker Brigade has facilitated the re-opening of a school in Afghanistan.  Stryker Lieutenant Miles Dunning is in charge of overseeing humanitarian assistance projects for the infantry company that led the village school project near Sperwan Ghar, in southern Afghanistan.  Lieutenant Dunning says the school, originally built by Canadian forces, closed due to intimidation by the Taliban. He says the Stryker soldiers have seen security improve, and worked with local officials to re-open the school.

Lieutenant Dunning says the school is helping Afghan kids get general education.

Lieutenant Dunning says they’re feeling good that the Afghan National Army can provide security to keep the school open.

Meanwhile, the Stryker unit has started another school project to the south of Sperwan Ghar.  The goal is to complete construction, and open the school before the Stryker’s year long deployment to Afghanistan ends next month.  Lieutenant Dunning says the school projects are typical of the community service type work that comprises most of what the Stryker Brigade has done in Afghanistan.

State Gives Money To Central Council Tlingit, Haida Tribe’s Child Support Unit

Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines

The State of Alaska agreed to release more than $50,000 to Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribe’s Child Support Unit.  The court agreement allows the Council to disperse the money to some families who have been waiting for years to see it.

Tlingit Master Artist Mabel Pike Passes Away

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

Tlingit Master Artist and Elder Mabel Pike has passed away. Pike was born in Douglas and spent her early years in Juneau. She and her husband Joe lived in Tanana and Bethel in the 1960s before moving to Anchorage, where she soon became active in Native community activities. Her son Jan See says she’s perhaps best known for her beadwork and as a teacher:

Pike also taught and lectured at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the Anchorage Museum, and in communities such as Chenega, Kodiak, Edna Bay and Togiak. She was a founding member of the nonprofit TAHETA Arts and Cultural group based in downtown Anchorage. See says she also founded an arts and crafts show that has become a Fur Rendezvous institution.

In 1987, the Alaska Federation of Natives adopted a resolution calling for a community gathering center in Anchorage… which led to a multi-year effort to raise the money needed to build the Alaska Native Heritage Center. See says his mother was involved in the early planning, teaching and demonstrating beading after it opened, and as a long-time board member.

Pike was active in other organizations as well, including the Anchorage Tribes of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska. Mabel Pike died Monday afternoon of complications related to a fall. She was 92. Her family plans to announce services soon.