Alaska News Nightly: August 6, 2010

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Begich Proposes Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
New legislation introduced by Democrat Senator Mark Begich aims to help tribes and village communities in Alaska get more control over domestic violence, alcohol and drug crimes. The Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2010 would pick up some of the elements that were cut from the Tribal Law and Order Act that was passed in July. Begich says justice programs set up by tribes allows them to deal with family violence as well as substance abuse crimes.

A proposed amendment to the Tribal Law and Order Act that would have created a $50 million pilot project allowing greater tribal court authority within a community prompted a strongly worded letter of objection from the state. Department of law attorney Rick Svobodny wrote the letter that said the project would threaten state sovereignty and would be litigated immediately. With changes, the proposal eventually gained the approval of the state, but was cut after Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn threatened to scuttle the entire bill over the money for the Alaska project. Begich says the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act attempts to address the high rates of crime in Alaska villages. He says he hopes more information about the chronic problem of crime in remote communities will help the bill gain support in Congress.

Natalie Landreth is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, Landreth says Begich’s legislation is leaps and bounds beyond earlier proposals and targets the issue of jurisdiction.

The problems are huge. Alaska Native women suffer rates of sexual assault that are three and a half times higher than the national average. A 2006 report found 95 percent of all crimes committed in rural Alaska involved alcohol. There are at least 200 villages in rural Alaska but only 71 Village Public Safety Officers, leaving many communities with no law enforcement presence and the prospect of possibly waiting days for State Troopers to fly in to deal with criminals.

The Alaska Safe Families and Villages demonstration project would have department of Justice oversight. The program would select up to nine tribes in Alaska to participate at a rate of three per year over a three year period. Selected tribes would stay in for five years. $250,000 per year would go to participating tribes to help support tribal court costs, training, equipment and other expenses. NARF’s Landreth says communities with active tribal courts would be able to choose what type of sanctions they would impose. The bill lays out that these options can include fines, forfeitures, restraining orders and emergency detention.  She says although tribes throughout the state could apply for inclusion in the project, some immediately come to mind as good candidates.

Tanana Chiefs Conference in interior Alaska has been working on ways of empowering tribal communities to handle the problems created by drug and alcohol abuse. Lisa Jaeger, is a tribal government specialist for TCC. She says TCC contributed to the planning and supports the bill.

She says it appears the bill has enough checks and balances to put tribes and the state in a good position for dealing with drug and alcohol problems collaboratively. Calls to the State Department of Law for comment were not returned.

Young Refuses to Comment on Federal Investigation
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
Representative Don Young is dodging reporters’ questions about a federal corruption probe.  Last night at the Republican Picnic in Anchorage, Young refused to elaborate on a press release from his office that said federal prosecutors have ended their investigation of him.  This afternoon his office again declined further comment on it. Young spent more than a million dollars on legal defense.  Earlier, Young had said he wouldn’t comment because the investigation was ongoing. Now his Republican primary election opponent says because the investigation is over, Young owes the public an explanation.

During federal trials of former state legislators, former VECO Incorporated owner Bill Allen has testified that he and his Vice President, Rick Smith, made illegal campaign contributions to Young and footed the bill for fundraising pig roasts for him.  But since that time, the prosecution team that worked with Allen has been pulled off the case by the Attorney General for withholding evidence from defendants’ legal teams.  In one highly publicized case, the conviction of former US Senator Ted Stevens was reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct.   Ever since then, the Justice department has refused repeatedly to make any comments to the press about its corruption probe.

Yesterday, Don Young’s primary election opponent, communication executive Sheldon Fisher, also started pushing for answers from the Justice Department.

Fisher admits that much of the information he seeks can probably be withheld by prosecutors under confidentiality exemptions.  But he says there may be some correspondence with Congress that would have to be disclosed.  That’s because Congress specifically requested an investigation of one matter involving Young – the Coconut Road earmark, which is money for a highway interchange at Coconut Road in Florida that was somehow added to the massive federal transportation bill while it was in Young’s Transportation Committee after being passed.  In other words, the earmark was never voted on, and nobody has ever explained how it got into the bill.  Fisher said the time has come for that explanation.

The Coconut Road interchange would have benefitted a real estate executive who made a major campaign contribution to Young, but Young has said that was not the reason for the earmark.

The winner of the Young-Fisher primary contest will face Democrat Harry Crawford, who has called Young a “legislator for hire.”  Yesterday, Crawford said it’s important to remember that the conclusion of the federal investigation of Young does not necessarily mean he is innocent.

Bill Allen has not been called upon to testify since his sentencing last October.   A judge has ruled that evidence provided by Allen that was withheld from bribery defendant Pete Kott would not have been sufficient to change the jury’s guilty verdict.  A motion to reverse the verdict against former state Representative Vic Kohring for similar reasons involving Allen is still pending.

Alaska Army National Guard Soldiers Prepare for Deployment
Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel
Alaska Army National Guard soldiers from across the state will be deploying to Iraq next week.

Soldiers of Bravo company will be deployed for a year-long tour of duty.  The deploying soldiers hail from Anchorage, Eagle River, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Bethel, Juneau, Haines, Quinhagak and Kenai.

The deployment will consist of about six soldiers from the YK delta which are part of the Bravo company.

A Departure Ceremony is scheduled for Monday at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at 3 pm.

From there soldiers will head to Texas for pre-mobilization and validation training before leaving for Iraq.

Chugach State Park Celebrates 40 Years
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Chugach State Park is celebrating its 40th anniversary today. The massive chunk of land on the edge of Anchorage encompasses a half million acres of glaciers, mountain peaks and river valleys filled with wildlife. It was established thanks to a passionate group of Anchorage residents who loved the outdoors.

Alaska Schools Making Progress
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Local schools in Alaska are slowly making improvements in meeting their adequate yearly progress – or AYP – basic standards.

On Friday, the Department of Education (and Early Development) showed that nearly 60 percent of the state’s 505 schools met the “No Child Left Behind” standards – a net increase of 10 schools over last year’s count.

Erik McCormick is the Director of Assessment, Accountability and Information Management for the Department.  He says Alaska schools have shown a positive trend, but not as steep a growth as they had hoped for.  He says this year, the results show 77 percent of students passed the language test and 66 percent passed the math test.

The AYP standard is a measurement of each school.  But the state is working with them and local districts to help them improve.  McCormick says much of the work comes by improving communications between failing schools and those that have shown success.

Eric Fry, the Department’s Information Officer, points to a long list of sources available to local schools and districts – from new teacher training programs, to mentoring, to pre-kindergarten development.

The Federal No Child Left Behind Act – which initiated the standards-based reporting – has not yet been reauthorized.  However, McCormick says the department is working a plan that presumes it will be in statute to meet the 2014 deadline.

Graduation Rate Dips; But Other Areas Improve
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
The Anchorage School District announced its Adequate Yearly Progress report yesterday.  AS KSKA’s Len Anderson reports, the results from Alaska’s largest school district may have been higher than the state average, but the improvement pattern was much the same.

Rivers Cause Erosion Concern Near Sutton
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Rain swollen waters of the Matanuska River have caused serious erosion in some areas near Sutton, carving out three feet of riverbank a day and threatening properties, according to Matanuska Susitna Borough media contacts.  The river is also chewing up a rock embankment constructed some years ago in the Butte area.  Borough workers are monitoring both situations. Frankie Barker is an planner with the Borough.

She says so far one home has been damaged severely.

About 20 threatened properties are in Sutton, sandwiched between the Glenn Highway and the river. The glacial river is loaded with sediment that scours riverbanks and carves new channels.  An especially wet July has added to the river’s potential for destruction.  The braided river has a wide bed, and the river itself travels from one side of the riverbed to the other from year to year.  The Borough and the US Geological Survey have teamed up on a mapping study to identify the erosion risk areas of the Matanuska River.  The Matanuska is a state river.  Rigorous state and federal permit processes are required to build in it, so the Borough faces additional challenges in dealing with erosion.

The Borough’s Matanuska River Management Plan comes up before the Assembly later this month.  The plan contains a request for more money for erosion projects.  Currently, the Borough has some funds to buy at risk properties.

Court Rules on State Predator Control Programs
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that state predator control programs conform to the sustained yield mandate for managing wildlife in Alaska’s Constitution.  Today’s decision affirms a lower court ruling in a case brought against the state by two environmental groups and an individual.  The Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife and Ronald West contended the State Game Board failed to apply sustained yield when it approved bear and wolf control programs in 2006.

The court decision says there’s latitude in the sustained yield clause that permits wildlife managers to establish preferential uses.

The court decision cites Fish and Game biologist’s assertions that wolves and bears could recover to pre-control populations, if killing programs ceased. The decision rejected the game board’s position that consideration of sustained yield is discretionary, adding that the board must adhere to the principle.

Anchorage Couple Explains “Permaculture”
Michelle Theriault, APRN – Anchorage
One Anchorage couple has transformed a run-down lot in the U-Med District into an urban farmstead that produces most of the food they eat. They call it permaculture.