ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Wintering at a scrappy weekly in the Valley of the Egos
In Dec. 17, 2015 issue of the weekly Chilkat Valley News, the lead story carried a headline that spoke library-volumes about life here in an isolated southeastern Alaska town of 2,500 creative, combative, hard-drinking souls who wage their public and personal battles on the shore of North America’s deepest fjord, among towering glaciers so numerous that many have no names.
This town is famous for its annual late-autumn invasion of bald eagles, which for a brief period outnumber the humans here.
The area bills itself as the Valley of the Eagles.
But one local wise-acre did that chamber-of-commerce phrase one better, considering the often-brittle self-regard of residents here.
He called it the Valley of the Egos.
The 2015 newspaper story centered on an emotional public outburst by Mayor Jan Hill, the matronly usually-composed owner of a local ornamental bead shop.
“Hill says community is hateful, vindictive,” the headline read. “Mayor slams borough critics.”
In Hill’s statement, which she read at a packed session of the Haines borough assembly, or town council, she blasted what she termed outrageous citizen behavior for repeated attacks against elected officials.
“It seems that every time we turn around, we are reprimanded, criticized and chastised if we don’t vote a certain way. We have been accused of not listening, ignoring public input, violating citizens’ Constitutional rights, violating our oaths of office, trying to prosecute for profit, turning our community into a ‘police state,’ power grabs, and the list goes on and on,” she said.
“The threats of recall and bullying that have gone on recently are totally inappropriate and unacceptable and must stop.”
Then-assembly member Diana Lapham agreed, saying “we are tired of being verbally abused.”
She largely blamed the town’s toxic atmosphere on the Chilkat Valley News, a feisty 1,500-circulation weekly run by veteran newspaperman and longtime Haines resident Tom Morphet, who for decades has taken a hyper-aggressive stance on coverage of community affairs.
A year or two before, Morphet and his lead reporter, Karen Garcia, won a distinguished-service journalism award for their story on an abusive police chief who routinely screamed at his staff so loudly the firemen could hear it next door and who often pointed a taser at subordinates to make his point.
He quit the day the story was published.
Still, Haines is a tough place to rise above the fray. The newspaper, Lapham said, “really does us no favors. It seems the articles are biased towards the borough being inept and not giving due process. My opinion is the paper is biased and I’m not sure why. It’s sad.”
Alaska is an edgy Libertarian-minded place where most people want less government; many moved here for just this reason. It’s the last frontier. In Haines, where many residents spout long-winded tirades about the “will of the people,” citizens had taken to referring to the assembly as a bunch of “Nazis.” The insults and breaches of civility ran both ways; an assembly member publicly one referred to a resident’s argument and presentation as “bullshit.”
In one major citizen revolt, 600 angry people — a full one-quarter of Haines’ population — stormed a borough meeting to protest a move to begin enforcing a long list of minor civic infractions, like jaywalking and failing to clean up after your dog.
In that meeting, people shouted and shook their fists, calling their elected officials “crazy” before convincing them to drop the measure.
Later, on the night the mayor gave her public scolding, she ended the holiday season statement by wishing everyone at the meeting a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, saying, “I hope we can come back together in 2016 with a fresh outlook, a newfound respect for differing opinions and new attitudes for working together for our community.”
Well, that didn’t happen.
If fact, in some ways, 2016 got even worse.
Haines is said to have the highest per capita number of college-degree holders in the state. A wide variety of artists also live here. The cozy mountain village, situated on the shores of Lynn Canal, the deepest fjord in North America, is also a proud fishing town with fleets of gillnetters who each summer ply waters populated by cruise ships that deposit thousands of photo-snapping tourists both here in the neighboring town of Skagway.
As a rule, the working-class fishermen like neither the college graduates nor the elite artists who sell to the tourists, whose cruise ships have been known to trample the fishermen’s nets without compensation. Such situations often bring in the people with college degrees and major attitudes, who are voted to seats on the borough assembly, to sort out the entire mess.
Either that, or make it worse.
Of course people Haines will take issue with this; because they take issue with everything.
In Haines, the redneck loggers and miners hate the environmental “greenies,” who may secretly hate them back. And everybody hates the town’s meth tweakers, which some members of town government refuse to admit even exist.
And everybody drinks in different bars: the intellectuals split their time between the local microbrewery and the Pioneer bar. The rednecks wage their fistfights at a fisherman’s dive called the Fogcutter. And the local Tlingit natives do their boozing a block away at the Harbor bar, where there are better pool tables.
But then there are free electrons that go anywhere they want.
Through it all, chaos often ensues. Not to mention hard feelings.
Even when the political chum settles, there’s often blood still left in the cold and icy fjord waters. The town has become a revolving door for outside professionals such as borough managers and police chiefs; who on job interviews are impressed by the town’s isolated beauty, only to later realize that the local politics is straight out of “Lord of the Flies.
After only six months on the job, the current police chief called his headhunter and demanded, “What the hell have you gotten me into?”
In the fall of 2016, matters took an even more-complicated turn this past fall when newspaper-owner Morphet apparently got so tired of reporting on the nincompoops on the borough assembly that he decided to run for a seat himself.
Well, guess what, Morphet won.
Not only that: He got more votes than any other candidate save one.
And the place went ballistic.
In a town where everyone is looking out for №1 — where fishermen sit on boards to push through a harbor expansion and where heli-ski company owners populate borough advisory panels investigating whether to increase the areas dedicated to helicopter-assisted skiing, suddenly Tom Morphet had a conflict-of-interest.
You can’t run a local newspaper and fill a seat on the local government, people said.
That’s just un-American.
Morphet’s reporter immediately quit the paper in a huff. So the owner-editor went into exile: he stepped away from the daily newspaper grind, took an office down the hall from his beloved weekly and concentrated on local politics — except that he couldn’t; not really. To fill his shoes, he brought in veteran reporters for temporary gigs, with encouragement to do what Morphet does best — chase news in this vitriolic little burg like the hounds pursuing the fox — with Morphet constantly looking over their shoulder.
That’s where I came in.
For nearly six weeks, I returned to my reporting roots. A year after taking a buyout from the Los Angeles Times, after 26 years that included stints as a national and foreign reporter, I was back covering night meetings, drinking coffee at 8 p.m. and working 80-hour weeks.
In that time, I was trolled on the Internet by nosey Haines residents, accused of saying “hateful” things about a town resident and called out for my “personal bias” when reporting on the Haines fiscal-2018 budget.
And, Haines being Haines, I wasn’t the only one being emotionally bloodied.
Some longtime residents took an instant dislike (or carried on their old grudges) against Morphet, whom they called distant and arrogant.
One resident calls Morphet and two other new borough assembly members as the Bolsheviks.
Morphet, of course, laughs this off, saying “when no other criticism sticks, call ’em a Commie.”
Such unpleasantness is playing out in the midst of ongoing budget cuts that have sliced to the bone of this resource-rich state. But since oil is no longer king, Alaska is hurting. And money for just about every creature comfort under the weak winter sun is running on short supply.
And if that’s not enough, this is the time of the year when the sun shines on Haines just six hours a day, making everyone irritable, grumpy and depressed.
But there are gentle people here.
There’s Joe Parnell, The Feltist, a misunderstood felt and performance artist who has been known to dress up in a bear costume as a statement to summertime tourists who come to Haines demanding to see bears, as if they were supplied by the Chamber of Commerce.
You want bears? Well, Joe’s got your bear right here.
There’s Fred Shields, another artisan and musician, who served three times as mayor and who now runs a gift shop called the Wild Iris. Fred’s wife died of cancer a few years ago and he still rues her presence as he refurbishes his grand old house in the grounds of Fort Seward, offering guidance to his two grown children, who still live in town.
Fred, you see, is a genius. His kitchen is full of maps, rolled up in their place, which he can consult at a moment’s notice to tell you things you didn’t know about the place you live.
And there’s Jane Pascoe, Tom Morphet’s wife, an Australian-born adventuress with unfathomable energy who sees Haines through the prism of all the recreational opportunities offered by the backcountry here. Jane works hard making the newspaper run, but is forever mindful of getting in a frequent cross-country ski and not to miss her yoga class. Each summer, she works with grizzlies as a park ranger.
Yes, Haines has people with balanced lives. Then there are those whose very existences center on Haines borough headquarters — the malevolent Death Star of this little town.
And then, some year-end political ugliness came to a head; almost a year to the day after Mayor Jan Hill took her 2015 public stand against the haters in Haines.
In what should have been a routine six-month performance review of Bill Seward, the town’s new manager, was fired for cause by the borough assembly.
That night, Morphet led the way, opening the nearly four-hour meeting by reading a manifesto against what can only be referred to as Seward’s Folly.
After the vote, the audience took turns lambasting Morphet as “despicable” and “arrogant,” someone who didn’t even remove his baseball cap during the Pledge of Allegiance.
One town veteran threatened to begin an immediate campaign to recall Morphet from office.
That was just after Mayor Hill addressed those present, calling her fellow assembly members “axe-hurlers.” Her voice breaking with tears, she said the town “just jumped off the cliff.”
The headline in the Chilkat Valley News read “Manager Seward fired with 4–2 vote.”
It could have just as well been the one from the year before: “Hill says community is hateful, vindictive.”
The next day, Julie Cozzi, the borough clerk and a red-headed jazz singer, became the interim manager for the fifth time in seven years in a town that has become a revolving door for police chiefs and managers.
Either they flee town or, like Seward, Haines runs them off.
For the first two days of her new interim status, Cozzi called in sick with a migraine headache, then showed up a a borough Christmas party at the local brewery, causing some in Haines to check borough code for fireable offenses.
Welcome to mud-slinging, name-calling, vendetta-wielding Haines, Alaska.
So, get yourself a drink. Hell, order a whole round. Ring the bell at the bar.
Do things you won’t remember in the morning, like some others around here.
The riot is just getting started.