Candidates vying to become the next mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough convened Wednesday for an election forum — one of their final group appearances before election day. Over the course of about an hour, candidates made some of their last pitches to a crowded conference room laden with Valentine’s Day-themed campaign bric-a-brac and local business owners.
Candidates were given time to make opening and closing statements in addition to time to answer questions, which moderator Merrill Sikorski said were submitted by chamber members and were more numerous than for any other election forum in the last 12 months.
Candidates Dave Carey and Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings currently serve on the Soldotna City Council, Peter Micciche is a former president of the Alaska Senate and Zach Hamilton is a co-owner of Brothers Cafe in Kenai. Robert Wall, who is running a write-in campaign for the same seat, did not participate in Wednesday’s forum.
In introducing themselves to attendees, candidates had different focus areas. Micciche cited his extensive experience in government at the state and local level, Hamilton emphasized his commitment to being an ethical leader, Carey said he would bring his personal philosophies of fiscal responsibility to the seat and Farnsworth-Hutchings explained her personal and family legacy of service to the central peninsula.
On the topic of tourism, candidates generally agreed that the borough has a role in helping promote the attributes of the borough alongside city chambers of commerce and self-promotion by individual businesses. Multiple candidates emphasized the importance of tourism as a piece of the borough’s economy.
“We need to continue to invest so that people understand how incredible it is to live, work, play and visit here,” Micciche said. “It is a major economic driver in this borough, and we need to make sure that it continues to be along with the other industries.”
“The borough should be the collaborator with all the chambers (and) all the cities, large and small, to make sure that we market the entire borough,” Carey said. “ … Should the borough be involved? Yes, on a substantial level. Bring in the people. The more we bring in the people to what we’re doing, the better this borough will be.”
Candidates were excited about initiatives in both Kenai and Soldotna to revitalize waterfront properties as a way to boost economic activities in the city, with Farnsworth-Hutchings and Hamilton saying the borough can play a facilitating role in moving those projects.
“Collaboration is the big thing,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said. “Listening and assisting where the borough mayor can.”
Hamilton, a small business owner, described himself as the “embodiment of creativity” and said the mayor can be a catalyst for forward movement on both initiatives, which he said would also benefit his own business.
“I’m the embodiment of what the overall goal would be, to have a growth mindset here in our communities and to see development happen,” Hamilton said. “What is the end result of developing our riverfront? It’s that there are drivers for economic development in two of our borough communities and within our borough.”
When asked about what they thought an appropriate amount is for the borough’s senior property tax exemption, nearly all candidates said clearly that they think seniors should be incentivized to stay on the Kenai Peninsula. Carey called it “repugnant” to question the value of seniors and Farnsworth-Hutchings said the borough has other ways of collecting tax revenues.
Micciche, drawing attention to what he said is a large number of grandparents on the Kenai Peninsula who are raising their grandchildren, said seniors “deserve a break” and that he would oppose any proposals to cut the borough’s senior tax exemption.
“I don’t usually speak this strongly, but if the assembly tries to cut the senior exemption, I will veto it,” Micciche said.
Hamilton noted that the combined amount of money that is exempted by the borough is comparable to the amount of money the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District needs to address an anticipated budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.
“I think it’s important we understand how we pay for things that allow us to have the kind of life that we want to have here on the peninsula,” Hamilton said.
All candidates said they would work as mayor to help advance the Alaska LNG Project, which would move gas for export from the North Slope through an 800-mile pipeline to a liquefaction plant in Nikiski. Micciche and Farnsworth-Hutchings both said an increase in demand for natural gas in Alaska and around the world generally are circumstances that support the project completion.
“It’s going to be the need for the gas that’s going to get it moving,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said of the project.
Carey said he supports “giveaway” projects from the government but said priority should be given to the day-to-day operations of the borough rather than “pie-in-the-sky” initiatives.
“Who in the world could be against major development here?” Carey said. “But it doesn’t happen.”
In their closing remarks, candidates drew attention to what distinguishes them from the other people running and reiterated the priorities of their campaign.
Carey said he will support whoever borough residents choose to be their next mayor, and urged that school extracurricular activities not be cut as a way to help the school district overcome its budget shortfall. He will be a partner, he said, to “whomever can provide a long-term solution.”
“For 10 years the state has failed the people and students of this borough,” Carey said. “It is wishful thinking to believe these same people are now going to save us.”
“It’s time for no-nonsense governing, no more drama, no more lawsuits (and) no more wasted money,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said.
“Our collective angst is not due to a lack of leadership, but it’s a direct result of the leadership we’ve had,” Hamilton said. “Come on, you know it. We need new leadership and I’m the embodiment of how new leaders — emerging leaders — think and act.”
Micciche used his closing remarks to tell attendees that the borough mayor is “the most important elected person in (their) life,” because borough decisions have more impact on residents’ daily lives. He at one point held up his cellphone, saying that “everyone that can help us is in this phone, and they answer when I call.”
“I’m not anything particularly special, but I am blessed with the ability to extract the special out of you to do wonderful things together,” Micciche told attendees. “We’re either going to be 60,000 strong as a borough by being united, or we’re going to continue to be small (communities), weak. I want to be strong.”
Candidates were also asked about the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s Tuesday vote to increase the mayor’s salary — which would not become effective until October — as well as their vision for how the mayor should provide leadership among staff.
The four candidates are scheduled to participate in one last forum on Thursday, which will be held at Homer High School from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and moderated by students. That forum will be available to stream after the event on the Homer Mariners YouTube channel. The event is sponsored by Homer High School, the League of Women Voters and Kenai Peninsula Votes.
More information about the candidates and the special election can be found on the Kenai Peninsula Borough elections webpage at kpb.us/vote.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.