PALMER — On June 25, Palmer Deputy Mayor Pete LaFrance will take one last ride.
Since he was elected in 2015, LaFrance has ridden his bike to city council meetings every other Tuesday. Rain, snow, wind, nor laziness would stop LaFrance, who began the challenge as a way to see things from a different perspective. LaFrance announced that he and his family are moving to Switzerland and he will no longer serve on the council. LaFrance has grown up as a part of the community and returned to help try and improve it as a part of the council.
“When you grow up here, it teaches you you’re part of something bigger and something special, and I think Palmer is special and we should all do what we can to make our community even better and it’s all about helping our neighbors at one level or another,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance grew up in an active family in Palmer and credited his parents with modeling a care for the world that he always aspired to replicate. LaFrance said that his government teacher was one of his personal heroes and he always had an interest in politics from a young age. After leaving the community for school and to live abroad, LaFrance was dismayed at his return when he saw only one candidate running for State House.
“My career in politics was started as an act of hubris really,” LaFrance said.
After an unsuccessful State House run, LaFrance was asked by a friend to run for Palmer City Council. Prior to being elected, LaFrance had committed to riding his bike to every meeting. During his time in between bike rides tending to council business, he voted for trail improvements and community council grants to community bike races.
“I love riding my bike at night in Palmer because there’s hardly any cars on the street, it’s well lit, it’s safe, it is absolutely romantic. And so I genuinely enjoy it and I look forward to it and I am the type of person that thinks when they exercise so it’s like the post meeting process for me,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance makes a note of the upcoming ski races, mountain races, road races, and bike races happening in Palmer. LaFrance’s wife won the contest to design bike racks in Palmer that were distributed throughout the city. LaFrance said that even though he will be departing the Council, he was happy to have been a part of movements that will continue long after he and his family are skiing Swiss slopes instead of Hatcher Pass.
“I’m really happy to have come in when livability seemed like it became a focus and planning out how to walk around the city of Palmer, how to bike, how to really polish up our community not in superficial ways but to make it a better place to live,” LaFrance said. “All these little pieces of that livability equation that make it great to live here also make it great to visit, and I think we’ll prosper regardless of how the state does.”
Among the passed legislation LaFrance counts in his win column is the single-use plastic bag ban ordinance.
“The bag initiative I think I’m really proud of that because we worked with a local community group from the recycling center on that, the zero waste team. Then we really looked at Wasilla’s bag initiative as well as others that had been implemented around the state and around the country and we used ideas from there but what came out of that was one that was unique to Palmer,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance wasn’t always in the majority on the council, and frequently found himself voting on the losing side. LaFrance recalls his ordinance to implement term limits on the council as a debate he’d wished he was more prepared for, regardless of the effect on the outcome of his ordinance. LaFrance recently spoke to a class about his time in public service and encouraged the students to get involved. He believes that everyone should be a part of the public process and that candidates should run for whatever office they choose, regardless of resume.
“What do you want to do? Where do you want to enact change? If you want to enact change at the state level, go for it, but I think what they’ll find is that education you received in running for that office whether it be at the national level at the Borough level at the state level, that’s really beneficial and an understanding of that process I think can hopefully lead to a love of that process which will hopefully lead to where the process I feel is the most pure and that’s at the city level. Without politics, without parties involved, without any of that, so I would encourage youth like aim high. Go where your heart is. If your heart is telling you go to the state house try it, man that’s what this country is built on, hubris embrace it,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance loves that local politics requires people to vote on the issue for what it is without party manual. Council member packets can range from 30 to 300 pages. LaFrance said that his process would include reading through each packet that was distributed before meetings and then asking for his wife to destroy his opinion so he can understand it from both sides.
“I think people can see the value of investing in their immediate community and that’s essentially, as I see it a progressive message. We’re worth it. We’re worth having good parks. We’re worth having good trails, worth having safe routes to school and good snow plowing, we’re worth it because we’re Palmer and we’re willing to invest in that because we trust each other and we value each other in this community,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance has been vocal about his opposition to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s time in office. During Dunleavy’s budget road show at Everetts in March, LaFrance stood up to the Governor whilst still remaining seated, verbally sparring over a reference to Norway’s economy during his presentation.
“I believe in Alaska. I don’t believe that Dunleavy can ruin Alaska. He is going to try because he I don’t think he can understand what Alaska is capable of and that’s the crime of having someone like that as Governor. He may be a nice guy, he might be tall, but I don’t think he gets that,” LaFrance said. “I see communities gaining voices in Alaska that traditionally haven’t necessarily had voices. Speaker of the house Bryce Edgemon, I think he’s a very thoughtful and necessary voice at the table I’m really happy to see him emerge in that role.”
While LaFrance will be watching from halfway around the world, he believes that he will be leaving Palmer in a good place.
“Where Palmer’s at, we have a really competent manager. We have great employees and now we can start having those discussions, those second level we’re not talking about necessarily fixing a single pothole or the kind of stuff that should be routinized at the City level. We’re talking about how can we make Palmer the best city in Alaska and how can we make it even better and that I’ve been really happy to be at the table for those discussions,” LaFrance said.
LaFrance has already packed most of his bikes and equipment, so he has been rolling around on a multichromatic Concorde road bike that he bought in France for 35 euros. After the June 25 meeting, the boy who grew up in Palmer and worked to improve Palmer will take one last ride.