Bethel’s ‘Yes for Local Option’ campaign begins to mobilize

A small group of Bethel citizens are organizing a campaign to rally support for a “yes” vote on the October 2, 2018 local option proposition. (Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

In less than two weeks, Bethel residents will head to the polls to vote on representatives for Bethel City Council. They’ll also vote on a proposition asking residents whether Bethel should return to local option status. The change would end legal alcohol sales in Bethel but would still allow for limited alcohol importation. With voting day approaching, local option supporters have begun to mobilize their campaign. KYUK attended their first public meeting on Wednesday.

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It’s a small group of 10 people getting together during lunch at the Bethel Teen Center. There are cookies and pizza, but most people don’t have time to eat. It’s just an initial meeting to get some face time with fellow supporters and answer a few questions. On a side table, meeting organizer Sharon Chakuchin churns out blue and white campaign buttons that read, “Vote Yes Local Option.”

“Voting yes for local option gives the community a voice and opportunity to have no liquor store here,” Chakuchin explained. “We saw the results of having a liquor store here.”

It’s these results, from when the AC Quickstop Liquor store was open, that haunt the people at this meeting and motivate them to campaign for a “yes” vote.

“Some people were just drinking way too much every day,” Bethel Elder Ruth Evon recalled.

“The ambulance crew was just going, going, going. The police were just going, going,” Rev. Wesley Russell added.

“The devastation that we experienced was really too much,” Chakuchin said.

Local option isn’t a perfect solution, and the folks at this meeting will be the first to tell you that. Bethel residents voted to leave local option in 2009. People didn’t like that the state was maintaining a database of all the alcohol ordered by residents. People didn’t like that if you brought in a certain volume of alcohol on a plane, you had to clearly label the contents on the outside of your tote or suitcase in precise, two-inch high letters with an attached, itemized invoice. It was a headache.

“It’s a very confusing code, and it’s not well written,” Bethel City Council member Leif Albertson said about Title IV, the Alaska statute that governs local option.

Albertson has been a vocal opponent of alcohol sales in Bethel. But like most people, in 2009, he also voted to leave local option status. What tipped the scale for him is the same thing that turned many people away.

“It was the felonies,” Albertson explained. “You know, 18-year-old kids getting felonies over bootlegging, and that really affected them for the rest of their life.”

Albertson saw mostly young males who suddenly couldn’t get a job in education or health care, the region’s largest employers, because of these convictions.

The stakes are high and can be devastating if you mess up under local option, which is easy to do. Charges that are Class A Misdemeanors suddenly rise to Class C Felonies under local option. Giving alcohol to a minor becomes a felony. Bootlegging becomes a felony, and the definition of bootlegging broadens under local option. Possessing more than a certain amount of alcohol is classified as bootlegging, because possessing a certain amount indicates intent to sell. A bootlegging felony can carry a sentence of up to five years in jail along with a fine of up to $50,000.

Nevertheless, there’s support to return to local option after the frightening conditions that legal liquor sales brought to Bethel and to surrounding communities. The petition to put local option on the ballot gathered 297 signatures.

Many of those people share Albertson’s view: “I think of the choices we have, this is the best option that we have.”

Some supporters see local option as an immediate stopgap solution for Bethel alcohol sales, but not one they want for the long term. Returning to local option would shut down alcohol sales and prevent new alcohol stores from opening, but there is the potential in the future for Bethel to vote to enter a different local option status than what will be decided in the next election. There could be an option that perhaps restricts alcohol sales just to restaurants while prohibiting alcohol stores. Or Bethel could pass stricter city alcohol laws itself and leave local option altogether.

Municipal elections are Tuesday, October 2, 2018. If you want to vote before then, you can cast an absentee ballot at City Hall during business hours from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Kusko Cab, Fili’s Pizza and a group of private citizens will be sponsoring free cab rides to and from the polls on Election Day.