Chief Estes breaks his silence and gives Council the 411
The Nome Common Council did not pass any laws Monday evening Sept. 23, but did discuss community issues germane to quality of life in Nome—public safety, ridding neighborhoods of unattractive sites, housing and animal control.
The Council followed these topics with an executive session on finance and personnel, but did not name a new city manager from three finalists interviewed by the community on Tuesday, who included local candidate John K. Handeland, Glenn Steckman from Pennsylvania and Randy Robertson of Aberdeen, Md.
Public safety is not fueled by adequate funding or political will, Nome Police Chief Bob Estes told the Council when called to the podium to provide more information. The department has lost four employees, including two part-time investigators, he said.
Estes talked directly to the Council telling them that the current mode of NPD was unsustainable.
He had made an assessment, which he would give the Council, the city manager and the public sitting in the Council Chamber. “It’s time to open the box,” Estes declared. He had come to Nome and saw a lot of issues the public was talking about, but had now uncovered more issues. His four-page report given to interim City Manager John Handeland reported a backlog of 460 cases.
“We have a problem with case management. We have a problem with follow up. We have a problem with personnel. We have a problem with interagency training,” Estes said. The department had sent 70 cases to the district attorney and received 20 back for further follow up. With that said, Estes went back to the issue of personnel.
“We do not have the personnel to investigate them now, so they are stopped,” according to Estes.
“They are cold cases for now.” On current cases, the department has 35 sex assault cases since January. Of the 35 sex assault cases, 31 have gone to the district attorney.
“I have one person per shift,” Estes told the Council. “It did not take me long to find out I need two people plus a supervisor—not a first responder—one for overwatch and case management.”
Standing at the podium, Estes said, “I have one very eager position hopefully as a permanent investigator plus myself, Paul Kosto and the deputy police chief Heintzelman to work these cases.
“This is not the way it is supposed to be,” he said—period.
At this point Estes became emotional, paused in his comments for a minute and then left the room for some air. He returned a couple minutes later, but before he did, Handeland said he would not hand out Estes’ four-page report as he had not read it; he received it only at the beginning of the meeting. “We will go through the budget,” Handeland said.
“It is the public who is suffering,” Estes said. “It is unsustainable, unsustainable, so I am asking you here what risk you are going to accept for the community? That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m not going to accept the risk,” Estes said. “I want to be here, I really do; if change does not come here quickly, I won’t be here. We need to sit down and have a serious and honest discussion.”
“I apologize for losing it, but it is the public suffering, not me,” Estes concluded.
The City and NPD are seeking grants to be able to teach suicide prevention as well as alcohol and drug abuse prevention and a resource officer position for benefit of young people.
The Council started off Monday’ evening with a work session before the regular Council meeting to go over structures presented to them by David Barron, building inspector, the top 15 that he found most in need of repair or tearing down.
If the City of Nome determines a structure to be a fire hazard, health hazard or public nuisance, City law allows removal or demolition by the owner or his agent. The list comes from a report or a combination of reports from the fire chief, chief of police or health officer. The City Council then names a time and place for a hearing before the Council to determine whether the report is correct.
Owners of the structures discussed will be notified and a public hearing on the proposed abatements will occur Oct. 8 at 5:30 p.m.
The Council specified that junk around an otherwise sound, secured, safe structure or building would not qualify it for the abatement list, nor would merely being vacant. This determination took off the list a building in Icy View owned by Floyd Gilder. The Council also questioned listing a structure on Seppala owned by a Shishmaref family who use it to store hunting and fishing equipment for when they come to Nome.
The list was a leftover from other building inspectors and previous years, Barron pointed out.
“My recommendation is that we take care of the 14 on this list and then look at the town freshly,” he said.
Some of the nominations were already gone, fixed, cleaned up or unsightly but secured from trespassers or risk to children or malicious mischief.
At Barron’s informing them that few were following an ordinance to pay a fee and register vacant buildings, the Council vowed to take another look at this law that should be enforced or cancelled.
“It was dumb,” Councilman Jerald Brown offered, “to have a fee when owners pay property tax.”
The registration of vacant properties also required maintenance during the owner’s absence, a plan to fix broken windows and the like, and a contact address and telephone number on file to get a handle on vacant structures.
An address with a derelict house at 209 Prospect, Belmont Point had been foreclosed by the City for unpaid property tax and designated by ordinance to become housing for City staff. There was a brief discussion on whether the expense of fixing the property in such rough shape with mold and damage inside would pencil out to a good deal for the City.
He would take a look, Handeland said.
Several members of the public attending the meeting took the podium during public comment period.
Jared Wiggins said that some bartenders continue to serve intoxicated people, leading to dangerous fights that caused serious injuries. Nome Police Chief Bob Estes urged the public to call police when they saw such a distribution of alcohol.
“Is it commonplace to leave a liquor store or bar open to three of four in the morning?” Estes asked. Limiting the hours would be helpful, he added. “It’s an epidemic and we are enabling it,” he said. The department had one officer on the street and one Community Safety Officer currently, he said.
“The public safety department is way overtaxed,” Estes said. The Council needed to decide of they wanted to put the community at risk with only one officer on the street per shift. If so, they needed to tell the community.
Councilwoman Jennifer Reader showed concern that people are starting to make camps along the seawall behind the Nugget Hotel.
The Bering Strait area is very high in suicide rates, Ivory Okleasik said. She would appreciate it if we could do something about it. There would be training Friday and another workshop on undoing racism occurring in December. Okleasik urged the council members to attend the educational sessions.
Councilwoman Meghan Topkok voiced a desire that historical monuments and other markers would more squarely represent the Alaska Native history of Nome and the Seward Peninsula.
A citizen expressed at length his concern about the harmful effects of fluoride in drinking water on health of the community especially children and elders.
Handeland announced in his report that the City has hired Ethan Ahkvaluk as a part-time general laborer to help with care, maintenance and cleaning of the dog pound. The City has not yet found a solution for a contract animal control officer. Whether Ethan could mature such a position would be evaluated, according to Handeland.
Brown, taking the mayor’s role in leading the meeting in the absence of Richard Beneville, reappointed John Odden to Odden’s expiring seat on the Nome Planning Commission with concurrence of the Council.