Officially Retired, Kelty Reflects On Decades-Long Career In Unalaska Politics, Fisheries

Dec 3, 2019

Frank Kelty speaks at City Hall on Oct. 8 during his last City Council meeting as Unalaska's mayor.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Former mayor Frank Kelty has retired after almost 40 years as a local official.

Before he moved to southern California last month, Kelty sat down with KUCB's Laura Kraegel to reflect on his long career. It began in the late 1960s when he moved from Washington to Alaska to find seasonal work as a seafood processor.

At first, Kelty said he just needed enough money to settle a $7,000 debt from a car accident. But he said he quickly fell in love with Unalaska and made it his home.

TRANSCRIPT

FRANK KELTY: We lived and worked on the ship that was moored up in East Channel, which is right across from the Alyeska [Seafoods] plant.

KUCB: What was the ship's name?

KELTY: East Point. The same name as the company. It was the East Point ship, and it was an old World War II Navy YO, which is "yard oiler." We built this dock and then we went in and renovated these buildings and put a crab plant operation onshore. At $2.25 an hour — that's what I made in those days in 1971, 72, as just a regular worker — it took a while to pay off that $7,000, plus the $1,000 fine. So I kind of fell in love with the remoteness of this place. It was quite the adventure — renovating these World War II buildings, finding all kinds of World War II artifacts, cans of World War II beer underneath floorboards, cigarettes, love letters or "Dear John" letters … But on the Amaknak Island side, we had no city services at all. But we were paying two percent landing tax on crab, and we were paying property taxes. So, how I ended up getting involved with politics is: I said, "I'm going to get on the City Council, and I'm going to do something about this lack of services we have."

KUCB: At that time, you and everybody at the city started working on expanding those services and building infrastructure, right? Upgrading the World War II-era water utilities and things like that, especially as more fish plants started setting up shop and the community and the port really started growing?

KELTY: That was kind of the start of the quality-of-life stuff that we focused on. The revenues from ground fish, like by 1988 or 89 — the money was coming in really good. More than we had imagined. So one of the first projects I was focused on as mayor, when I became mayor in 1991, was road paving. The roads were just abominable, and we spent so much maintenance money on that. I remember when we brought Wally Hickel out here in 1991 or 92, when he was governor, and I bounced him around in a little bus and said, "We need some help with these roads!" You know, a lot of people said, "Oh, Kelty, you’re going to ruin the village atmosphere of the community if we have paved roads. Everybody'll be driving 50 miles an hour, and we'll lose that village atmosphere." But I said, "Hey, we've got a growing industry. People want to have decent vehicles on the island so we don't have a bunch of junkers that are left all over town."

KUCB: It sounds like there was debate, though, about what direction the community should go and how the development of industry should be handled.

KELTY: You know, there were pluses and minuses. I think the pluses far outweighed the minuses because it generated the revenue that allowed us to upgrade our community — get roads paved, quality schools, facilities built, bike trails … At the same time, I remember signing a check for a couple million dollars for the clinic, which was also one of our first buildings for quality of life. City Hall was built in 1994. We would do a project and pay it out of our reserves — cash money, no debts taken on. And then in 95, 96 was the Department of Parks, Culture, and Recreation [PCR]. Down the road at Public Works was 97, 98. And then, the last projects [when] I was mayor the first time were the library and the museum.

KUCB: Before I ask you about your second stint as mayor, you worked for the city in another role first, as the fisheries resource analyst. You took that post after retiring from your job as a plant manager and got very into fisheries policy, like pollock rationalization?

KELTY: That was a big battle. And then, we had the next big rationalization program, which was the crab rationalization program, which I was heavily involved in. That was a very important program, because it saved lives. I had at least two boatloads of crew members that I was associated with — when I was a crab plant manager — who died in this race [to fish]. And other vessels had good friends who died. So I was really a proponent. The benefit I would see with a reduced fleet — that we were seeing already in the pollock fishery — was the race for fish was over. You had more time to organize your processing and the products you could develop. So we slowed down that fishery. It was way overbuilt. We used to have 250 boats for red crab seasons, and now we're down to around 70.

KUCB: There'd be 250 of those boats in the waters here?

KELTY: Yeah! It used to be like a city out there with them on anchor waiting to get offloaded. You just had this mass of boats and dead loss — and just chaos for six to eight weeks straight. So it was really critical to get that fishery under control. But being involved with the fisheries meetings — not to brag, but I was one of the first times where you had community members and City Council members going to every meeting. And I think that was important, because the community's livelihood would be on the line. The longshoremen, the population at the school, the support sector businesses in the community — they're all dependent on the resources of the Bering Sea. So it was always important to be out front like that.

KUCB: Speaking of being out front, you did retire from fisheries and politics for about six months before you ran again for City Council — and then you ran again for the mayor's office. In that time, a lot of policies moved forward. You survived a recall election. How was it getting back into office this time around?

KELTY: You know, ran into a few issues. But I still think we got some things [done] that I thought were important. Getting the fire and police departments separated, I think, is going to be a win-win. Getting alternative energy towers up — I wish I had more time to keep working on that. Being part of the last part of the $40 million Unalaska Marine Center [UMC] project. Then, on the side, I was doing my school board stuff for about six years. I'm really sad to leave the school board because it's something that's really important. I have three granddaughters in the school, and my daughter graduated from Unalaska high school. So it's always been near and dear to my heart, and we're so proud that it's one of the top schools in the state.

KUCB: Now that you're retiring to California, how are you feeling? I know you have family here, and you'll be back to visit. But you've been in Unalaska a long time, and it's got to be something to finally step away.

KELTY: I tell you, when the date came for signing up [for the municipal election], I was biting my fingernails and walking around. "What am I doing? My name's not on the ballot for the first time ever?" This has been my whole adult life in this community. I love it dearly. Probably going to cry my eyes out. But I'm thinking maybe I'll join the Democratic Party in Palm Desert! Of course, I don't think there are very many Democrats down there, but I can always do that. Maybe I'll send you an article sometime: "Frank Kelty's on the City Council of Palm Desert, California."