Though there are still nearly 10 months before Kenai Peninsula Borough residents will pick their new borough mayor, two people have already thrown their hats into the ring for the position.
Sterling resident Charlie Pierce filed a letter of intent with the Alaska Public Offices Commission in mid-October, approximately a year ahead of the election. A little less than a month later, Soldotna resident Linda Hutchings submitted her own letter of intent for the office. The position will be up for grabs when current Mayor Mike Navarre is termed out in October.
Pierce, a career Enstar Natural Gas Co. worker who served on the borough assembly for two terms from 2008–2014, said he is running because he wants to preserve the quality of life on the peninsula. Originally from Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, he moved to Anchorage in 1975 as a teenager. He moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1990 and managed the Enstar office in Soldotna until last year, when he retired.
Pierce said peninsula residents are facing the questions of higher taxes, higher cost of living and individuals paying more for government. The state has been spending too much money, focusing on wants instead of needs, he said.
“I just want to maintain what we have,” he said.
The economy of Alaska has been on the decline since early 2014, when oil prices began to plummet, resulting in layoffs among oil and gas extraction and service companies. The state government is still trying to cover the loss in revenue, and on the Kenai Peninsula, many people have lost jobs and income. Some may leave the state — Alaska’s population dropped by about 6,700 in 2015, at least partially due to an improved economy in the Lower 48 and worsening conditions in Alaska. The Kenai’s population grew in 2015, with about 348 more people, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Pierce said he was concerned about the decline in oil production across the state because that translates directly to jobs. A pro-development candidate, he said he has been frustrated in the past by efforts to stymie projects like the Pebble Mine and the Chuitna Coal Mine by two entrenched sides unwilling to discuss compromises. Pierce said he wants to see more discussion of concerns before simply denying permits.
“As a leader or a representative, I would always protect he environment first,” he said. “But I believe that we as a people in the state of Alaska have the right to develop our natural resources.”
Pierce said he would focus on ways to make borough government more efficient while delivering services, such as modernizing technology in the school district and finding ways to streamline the government to reduce costs. While on the borough assembly, he said he spent significant time reviewing individual items within budgets and questioning the need for expenses. He said he would do the same as mayor, asking for rationale behind expenditures before approving them.
“As mayor, before I ever put (an item) into the budget, I need to understand it,” Pierce said.
His current sole challenger is also a longtime businessperson in the community. Hutchings, who chairs Soldotna’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, worked for 35 years as the CFO of Hutchings Auto Group, a car dealership she and her husband own, and has also served on a variety of governmental boards, including the borough’s various iterations of a health care task force and the state’s Workers Compensation Board. She was elected last fall to serve on the Soldotna Charter Commission, which drafted the city’s home-rule charter, but otherwise has never run for office. If elected, she would be the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s first female mayor, though a number of women have run for the office over the years.
The daughter of homesteaders Jack and Dolly Farnsworth, who were involved in the incorporation of Soldotna as a city, as well as the formation of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Central Peninsula Hospital, she said she never intended to get involved in politics for the sake of her children because “kids get a lot of pushback when their parents are involved in politics.” However, she said she feels she is the best person for the job and wants to see borough continue its successful run.
“I’ve had the accounting experience for a number of years, (and) I’ve had excessive experience in government just because my parents were so involved,” Hutchings said. “Jack and Dolly Farnsworth and the pioneers in the area were instrumental in developing the borough. I can tell you even as far as statehood, the first governor used to sit at our kitchen table.”
Government is like a business, she said. Within the auto business, there were multiple businesses and a lot of money in payroll, so she is familiar with managing budgets and employees, she said. The peninsula’s oil and gas assets lend it a major role in the future of the state, and it has a broader economic base than other areas of the state, including fisheries and shipping, she said.
“Mat-Su doesn’t have the oil and gas that we have. Anchorage is more industrial and shipping,” Hutchings said. “We are involved in all of those things … we are quite diverse.”
Both candidates served on the borough’s health care task force in 2010, which debated whether the sell the borough’s two hospitals to a private entity. Hutchings said it was apparent that people wanted to maintain local control over the hospitals during the 2010 task force and the most recent iteration, which met in 2015 and 2016. As mayor, she would leave most of the decisions up to the nonprofit operating boards that operate the hospitals, she said.
“There is a definitely a line in the sand there that we cannot cross over because that is a board that runs their own hospital,” Hutchings said. “That is totally the hospital that has say in all that.”
Pierce, who sponsored a 2011 ordinance before the assembly to sell Central Peninsula Hospital that was ultimately killed before introduction, said he wouldn’t rule out selling the hospital if it became more fiscally responsible to do so. He said he wouldn’t support unifying the service areas, as has been discussed in the most recent Healthcare Task Force and before the borough assembly.
The new mayor will also likely have to address a high-profile lawsuit against the borough related to the invocation before the borough assembly’s regular meetings. After the assembly implemented a policy laying out who can give an invocation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued in mid-December, calling the policy discriminatory. The assembly recently voted against changing the rules and approved a transfer of $50,000 from Navarre’s office to the legal department to hire outside counsel to defend the borough.
Hutchings said the issue has been blown out of proportion. There are invocations at many levels, including before the Workers Compensation Board that she also serves on, and she said she does not mind them, though they are not always prayers — they can be moments of silence to reflect as well, she said. Pierce said though he also personally prefers the invocation, he wouldn’t spend much time or money on the lawsuit because it’s likely a losing fight for the borough.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.