Nikiski resident Jesse Bjorkman is seeking a seat in District 3 — representing the Nikiski area — on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The seat is currently held by Wayne Ogle. According to his candidate file, Bjorkman is a teacher, fisherman and radio talk show host. Bjorkman has been an Alaska resident for 10 years, his file says. He attended Michigan State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science with a focus in international relations and economics. Bjorkman has been a precinct leader in District 29 for the Alaska GOP since 2014 and currently teaches history at Nikiski Middle/High School.
What makes you qualified to serve on the assembly?
I have a lot of experience paying attention to local politics, and seeing how the assembly interacts with itself as well as the state government has given me a lot of insight into some ideas for the assembly to work better with the mayor — to come to agreements on what to do to move the community of Nikiski and the Kenai Peninsula Borough forward. And not simply have disagreements for the sake of disagreeing sometimes. So the experience I bring to the table is primarily being an informed citizen who is willing to find ways to solve problems and to move forward.
What do you hope to accomplish while serving on the assembly?
The biggest thing I hope to accomplish while serving on the assembly is being the best representative for the working men and women of Nikiski and making sure that their interests are represented. I think we can definitely work to reduce the property tax mill rate and to get that mill rate down. It was unfortunate to see the mill rate actually go up two years ago. I don’t think that was necessary as the borough is building fund balance. We see that again this year with a budget surplus at the end of the year. I think in general I would like to see the borough make its tax system simpler and easier and rely more on consumption or sales type taxes rather than property taxes that really tax the existence of working men and women.
Would you prioritize new taxes or cuts in spending when it comes to balancing the budget?
One of the great resources that the borough does have is, I think, the Charlie Pierce administration has done a pretty good job of controlling costs at the borough level, and we’re seeing that through some of the budget surpluses that they are reporting on. That’s really great, and what we can continue to do is find efficiencies where we can, and making sure that our borough is providing the best level of efficient, right-sized government for the people, and we can move forward from there. What I don’t want to do is I don’t want to raise taxes on working families of Nikiski before we make sure that visitors to the Kenai Peninsula are doing everything that they can to help provide services that they receive.
Do you think anything should be done to increase voter turnout in the borough?
I think it’s important for folks to realize that the most important government is the government that’s closest to them. To encourage people to get out to the polls and talk about the issues is something that I think we all can do. Whether we are citizens in the community or members of the media, getting together and talking about the issues of the day is very important. I think if we can be honest with voters about what the financial situation of the borough is, how issues could come up in the future that might affect them, those are ways that we can engage voters. I think vote-by-mail is the wrong option. I’m against voting by mail because I don’t think that’s in Nikiski’s interest. What I am in favor of is engaging more voters by being truthful, open and honest about the issues and about where folks stand on the issues. We have to be open and honest with our constituents and our voters, and we have to encourage everyone who has a stake in these issues to vote.
The offering of invocations during assembly meetings has become a divisive issue over the last few years, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Ordinances have been introduced to rid the practice altogether. Where do you stand on that issue?
Faith and Christianity is a big part of many people’s lives here on the peninsula. I gave my life to Jesus Christ when I was 4 years old, and my Christianity is a big part of who I am as a man. And that’s important to me. What I can tell you about the invocation is that I think the invocation policy is fine like it is. If people are true and dedicated to their faith and they want to give an invocation, I think that’s appropriate. I think if someone is dedicated and truly believes in their religion they should have the opportunity to offer a prayer at an assembly meeting. And that’s a great way to have a conversation about what religions people have. It’s a great opportunity to have a conversation about Christianity and religion, and I don’t think we need to change the invocation policy. I am for having invocations at the borough assembly.
Considering your background as a teacher, what would you say to concerns about a potential conflict of interest when it comes to determining the borough’s education budget?
I understand that concern, but what I can tell you is that I am often one of the first and sometimes one of the only people to speak out as an educator against spending that I feel is unnecessary or unjust. I’ve gotten up at borough meetings and spoken against a bond proposal to build the Kachemak Selo school. I’ve spoken up against many well-intentioned plans at the school district level to spend money on different programs or initiatives that may sound nice but are more flash and shiny object than about results. So if there’s one person that can be on the assembly that can give a very fine-toothed comb to a school board budget it’s Jesse Bjorkman. Because I’m familiar with the budget, I know the issues, and I’m not going to turn over taxpayer money when the school district doesn’t need it. It’s very clear to me that the borough should not waste any money, and I have the experience and the expertise with the school board budget to know if that’s happening. So I think I could be the taxpayer’s best friend when it comes to that school budget to make sure they’re spending that money on every child receiving an excellent education every day and not just a flashy new shiny program that an administrator wants to do.
So you wouldn’t recuse yourself from discussions regarding the education budget?
If it’s found that, legally, I have a conflict because of my having a position with the school district I wouldn’t contest that. But I don’t want to disenfranchise the men and women of Nikiski of my vote simply because I am a teacher. We have a citizen Legislature here in Alaska. We have a borough assembly that’s made up of citizens, and everyone has a job in the community. So everyone at one point in time is going to have a conflict about one issue. What I can tell you is that I’m honest, I have integrity, and I’m dependable to listen to folks and do the right thing. If it is found that I have a conflict about a certain issue I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I do have the integrity to represent the people of Nikiski and not special interests.