Candidates for two of the open seats on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly talked about their vision for the borough, their ideas for boosting economic development and their perspective on changeover within the borough mayor’s office at the third Clarion/KDLL candidate forum, held at the Soldotna Public Library on Monday.
The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters are hosting nine forums ahead of this year’s elections. Over the course of roughly an hour, candidates fielded questions from moderators Sabine Poux, news director at KDLL, and Ashlyn O’Hara, government and education reporter at The Peninsula Clarion.
Don Boston is running against Tyson Cox for the assembly’s Soldotna seat. Boston has owned Boston’s Automotive in Soldotna for more than 20 years. Cox has represented Soldotna on the assembly since 2019 and works as a real estate investor and manager. He previously served on the Soldotna City Council.
Brent Johnson is running unopposed for reelection to the assembly’s District 7 seat, which runs from south of Soldotna to Nikolaevsk and includes the communities of Clam Gulch, Ninilchik and Happy Valley. Johnson has served on the assembly for nine years and also has experience on the borough planning commission and board of equalization.
Candidates were asked about economic development, the borough’s spruce bark beetle outbreak, education funding and outgoing Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, who announced in late August that he would be resigning effective Sept. 30.
Candidates generally said the borough should not be as far behind on school maintenance as it is, and that the $65.5 million bond package to be considered by voters next month is just one way to address the problem. Boston said new facilities should be built with longevity in mind, while Cox proposed creating a borough fund specifically for school maintenance.
“(A bond) always tells me that we’re behind,” Johnson said. “The bonding is over $66 million and the amount that we’re behind — there’s over $200 million worth of projects out there. We need to develop ways to stay ahead of the game so we don’t have to bond.”
Candidates had different ideas about how the borough could encourage new economic development on the Kenai Peninsula. Cox and Johnson said the borough should make the most of its relationship with the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District. Cox, who sits on the KPEDD Board of Directors, said there’s currently a lot of focus on broadband expansion.
Johnson said he’d be open to new tax incentives, such as those approved by the assembly earlier this year for independent power producers, while Boston said there needs to be less “red tape” for businesses to navigate.
“After being in business for all these years, I have run into a lot of red tape, regulations, things like that,” Boston said. “I think the borough could lighten up on that and maybe help the businesses get through some of the red tape. I think government should help you cut through red tape, not tie you up with it.”
Candidates also offered their thoughts on the outcomes of the assembly’s Sept. 11 special meeting, when assembly members released a statement that said an allegation of harassment against Pierce by a borough employee was found to be “credible.” They disagreed on the value of the assembly statement released Sunday.
Johnson, who called Sunday’s special meeting, said he thinks the public has a right to know the details of that investigation, but also said Pierce and the complainant have a right to privacy, to a certain extent. Still, Johnson said the assembly had to operate within the advice of Borough Attorney Sean Kelley.
Cox said he voted against releasing the full report because the redacted versions of documents “would not give people enough information” and because borough employees should be able to make complaints without worrying that the details will be made public.
“I think it’s the obligation of the assembly and of the borough to be as transparent as possible without breaking any laws,” Cox said.
Boston condemned the statement released Sunday and said the assembly “cherry picked” pieces of information “to make Charlie look bad.” Boston said it’s unlikely the assembly would be able to provide answers that would satisfy him, but that he understands the situation is “serious.”
Sitting assembly members voted 7-2 on Sept. 6 to appoint Navarre, who is a two-time former mayor and former state lawmaker, as interim mayor. Navarre’s appointment has faced pushback from some who felt the process left out members of the public, while others say a majority of assembly members agreed on Navarre as the best path forward.
Both Cox — who moved to appoint Navarre last week — and Johnson said they think assembly members handled the appointment well considering the situation. Both highlighted Navarre’s qualifications and Cox pointed out that the vote to appoint was 7-2. Boston agreed that Navarre is qualified, but said the public should have had a better opportunity to provide input.
When asked where they want to see the borough in five to 10 years, Boston said he wants to see better borough roads, education and waste management. Cox echoed the comments about waste management, but said the borough should also focus on maintaining the high level of service it currently provides. Johnson said he’d like to see less polarization between residents and more “good jobs” available for workers.
In addition to candidates for assembly, borough voters will also decide the fate of a $65.5 million bond that would tackle maintenance projects at Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities and whether or not to add two seats to the borough assembly and board of education. Central peninsula voters will also decide whether or not to approve a $16.5 million bond that would be used to construct a new primary fire station for Central Emergency Services. More information about all ballot propositions can be found at kpb.us/assembly-clerk/elections/election-seats.
There are three other candidates running for a seat on the assembly. Incumbent Nikiski representative Jesse Bjorkman is running for reelection against Borough Roads Director Dil Uhlin and Chase Griffith. Those candidates will participate in their own forum on Sept. 26.
Election day is Oct. 4 and absentee voting begins Sept. 19. Monday’s full assembly candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page or on KDLL’s website at kdll.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.