Government needs to remember its role is to serve the public

What’s the proper relationship between the private and public sectors? Recent government actions have prompted us to consider that question anew.

The seeming unwillingness of the Homer City Council to provide relief for the estate of late council member Dennis Novak, whose Bay View Inn lost its permit for nonconforming use in a rural residential area, makes us wonder why compassion can’t be considered with consistency when enforcing city rules. (After all, the inn was there before the zoning rules.)

And a plan by the Alaska Marine Highway System to end sales commissions to travel agents booking ferry trips for Alaskans, and only Alaskans, is just plain confusing.

In the Bay View Inn matter, historical context should count for something. The inn operated for more than 50 years. Should its ability to operate as a business be taken away because — for whatever reasons — the inn didn’t operate for more than a year after after Mr. Novak’s death? 

Surely, there’s got to be some wiggle room in this issue without opening a Pandora’s Box of planning and zoning problems. Nobody wants all the rules to be tossed out, but can’t those rules be administered with common sense? What if those making the decisions asked: Is this how I would want my family treated? Who is hurt by allowing this?

We understand the slippery slope that granting exceptions can be, but in this case we urge city officials and the city council to reconsider and find a win for all parties. Do city officials really prefer a slice of Homer history be bulldozed and replaced with a single-family residence or, even worse, to deteriorate to the point it can’t be resurrected as a viable small business? 

On the state level, the Alaska Marine Highway System plan to cut commissions to travel agents for sales to Alaskans may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish. The move would save the ferry system about $100,000, but it would cost eight jobs at the employee-owned, Homer based Alaska Ferry Adventures & Tours and put that booking agency out of business.

To both the Homer community and the larger Alaska community, those eight jobs are worth far more than $100,000. 

For years, the government mantra has been: Government shouldn’t be doing what private enterprise can be doing better. This is a prime example of a service that private enterprise can do better. In fact, if the ferry system really wants to save money, why doesn’t it let private enterprise take over all its bookings? 

If the state follows through with this plan, it needs to be prepared to answer how the move better serves Alaskans. When a private company does the job of state workers for less, and in the process serves customers and helps the visitor industry by adding on land tours, hotel bookings and flightseeing trips, that’s not a bad thing. The ferry system needs to look elsewhere for cuts.

Back to the question: What’s the proper relationship between the public and private sectors? The Alaska Constitution says it best: “All political power is inherent in the people. All government originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the people as a whole.” 

The Bay View Inn and Alaska Marine Highway System issues illustrate what happens when government forgets its role. The people are the boss, not the other way around.

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