Jesse Bjorkman (right) speaks at a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Jesse Bjorkman (right) speaks at a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Amendment to fund outside counsel fails after heated assembly debate

The amendment was proposed in response to a discussion over two assembly members’ potential conflicts of interest.

Efforts to budget money that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly could use to hire legal counsel independent of the borough failed Tuesday following a vote by the assembly in opposition.

Up for consideration by the borough assembly Tuesday was the borough’s FY22 budget. FY22 refers to the borough’s fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2021 and ending on June 30, 2022. The budget document is given two public hearings. The first was Tuesday and the second will be during the assembly’s June 1 meeting.

Assembly member Tyson Cox, who represents Soldotna, during Tuesday’s meeting proposed budgeting an additional $20,000 to the Assembly Administration’s “contractual services” line item that could be made available to the assembly if they wanted legal counsel independent of the borough. Currently, the assembly solicits legal advice from Borough Attorney Colette Thompson, who will be retiring later this year.

Cox said he introduced the amendment in response to a discussion during the assembly’s last meeting, where the assembly debated whether assembly members who were affiliated with the school district should be allowed to vote on setting the district’s funding floor.

During that meeting, Cox and assembly member Jesse Bjorkman declared a potential conflict of interest on Resolution 2021-033, which set the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s funding floor for the next fiscal year. Cox is married to a teacher at Soldotna High School and Jesse Bjorkman is a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School.

Assembly President Brent Hibbert ruled that the two did not have a conflict because setting the school district’s funding floor would not impact the salaries of Bjorkman or of Cox’s wife. In a memo provided to the assembly prior to their May 4 meeting, Thompson said she believed the two did have a conflict. That memo was not made public due to attorney-client privilege.

Assembly member Richard Derkevorkian challenged Hibbert’s ruling, which can be overturned if at least five assembly members agree that it should be overturned. Ultimately, only three assembly members supported overturning Hibbert’s ruling, so Cox and Bjorkman were allowed to vote on budget legislation and amendments.

“It’s just an opinion and I wanted a second opinion … to be very frank I felt like I had to represent myself quite a bit,” Cox said Tuesday. “I don’t think that’s part of our job as assembly members is to also have to try and be legal counsel.”

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said that while he has also disagreed with the legal department before, the majority-rule system used by the assembly is ultimately given the final say.

Thompson said that her main concern with the amendment is that the borough would “waste” a lot of money and time and would ultimately create more division.

“The concern I would have is that, first of all, under the state statute, the municipal attorney … advises the assembly, the administration and the school board,” Thompson said Tuesday. “The only municipality that I’m aware of at the borough level that has a separate attorney for the governing body is the Municipality of Anchorage. … I realize Mr. Cox is not talking about hiring in-house counsel, but that eventually could come about. What that does is create division and instead of saving money, I suggest that that would increase costs to have our in-house counsel debating with your outside counsel over borough matters when my client is the borough.”

Cox pushed back on whether or not outgoing Chief of Staff James Baisden was allowed to provide comments on the issue, which kicked off a heated exchange between the two.

“Why do we waste our time at your meeting if you don’t want our input?” Baisden said.

Hibbert interjected to say that the process through which his ruling was challenged played out the way it should have, with a majority rule affirming his stance that Bjorkman and Cox did not have a conflict.

“Just for the record I want to say that from the administration’s perspective … we disagree with your ruling on the conflict,” Pierce said to Hibbert.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Baisden, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

Ultimately, Cox’s proposal to add $20,000 to assembly contractual services in the budget failed by a vote of 3-6 with assembly members Cox, Bjorkman and Willy Dunne voting in favor.

Tuesday’s assembly meeting can be viewed on the borough website at kpb.us. Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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