In this year’s municipal elections, three seats are open on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. In District 2, which represents the City of Kenai, incumbent Hal Smalley is running against Richard Derkevorkian. In District 5, which represents Sterling and Funny River, Bill Elam is running unopposed. In District 8, which represents Homer, Lane Chesley is running unopposed.
Elam and Smalley spoke with the Clarion ahead of the election about their campaign. Derkevorkian answered the same questions asked of other candidates via email. Chesley’s interview was conducted by the Homer News and printed in a previous edition of the Clarion.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for election?
Smalley (District 2): Well, we’ve got a lot of things started. One of them is getting adequate funding for public schools. We have three charges: funding of schools, solid waste — the dumps and transfer stations — and roads. Those are our three main charges. And we’ve we’ve made some progress over the years there. I served for six years and then I sat off three, and then I ran again. So this is the end of my ninth year, and we’ve started reworking the codebook. We’re looking at the Planning Commission, and the planning department, and we’re rewriting some of the material there based on what the planning department has indicated. We’ve had some changes there, so it’s slowed down. We have an acting director now, but it’s coming along fine. So I’d kind of like to continue along that vein, looking at that codebook and making some revisions.
Derkevorkian (District 2): I felt like the borough assembly has become very power hungry over the past few years and I didn’t agree with many of Hal Smalley’s votes. Six assembly members (Hal included) decided that the 50,000-plus registered voters on the Kenai Peninsula will all vote by mail. Why would the assembly not allow this on the ballot? I want to give the residents of Kenai a voice on the assembly and make sure important issues are put to the voters.
Elam (District 5): I had been approached by a couple of friends at various times over the springtime. And at first, whenever somebody had suggested it, I was like ‘Oh no, I’m not a politician.’ And then I kind of kept mulling it over and thinking about it and everything and, you know, another friend of mine suggested it as well. I was just kind of thinking about it and I’m like, you know, this is probably a good opportunity for me to be able to help serve my community, try to do some good and leave the place a little bit better than I found it.
I’ve got a pretty young family. I’ve got my wife, and we have three young boys. One turns 7 here in another couple of weeks, a 5-year old and a 2-year old. I’m pretty busy and pretty active in the community. I just really like where we live here, and to be able to come in and serve and, like I say, leave the place a little bit better than I found it, it just seemed like a great opportunity. So I was like you know what, I’ll go ahead and put my name in the hat and we’ll see where this goes.
What skills or qualifications do you think make you the best candidate?
Smalley (District 2): I think my leadership skills, my energy that I have, the fact that I do my homework. I travel out to sites that I know we’re going to be discussing. I take a look at them so I know what we’re talking about. I have an understanding and if I don’t understand it yet, I’ll call the directors of those departments and have a chat with them about why we’re looking at this particular item. I’m a great listener. I have connections across the state. I’ve served in a number of different capacities. If I’m successful at the end of this term coming, I’ll have 30 years in elected office. Kenai City Council, Alaska State House of Representatives and the assembly. So I think my experience, my leadership, my energy. I’m focused, and I enjoy it. My wife says I’m crazy.
Derkevorkian (District 2): I have been vocal in local politics for years and research topics before forming an opinion on them. During this time I have formed constructive relationships with many of our area’s local leaders, whether by supporting them or challenging them. Also, while my opponent has years of firsthand political experience, I will bring fresh eyes and judgment to borough assembly discussions and I think most people can agree it’s time for that.
Elam (District 5): You know, I’m a pretty fast learner at a lot of things. I’ve been a generalist for most of my professional career. I work in the IT department down here at the hospital, and so I’ve been in technology specifically for quite a while, about 20-ish years or so, maybe a little longer than I want to actually acknowledge. And I’ve worked in every gambit of it.
So from a small business, my dad and I actually started a small IT company whenever I was in high school, and we developed all that, so I’ve got the small business, entrepreneurial background. Started from nothing and built it up. We got to the point where we had a decent-sized little business there.
I worked over in the Seattle area for a number of years and got into some larger corporations there and got some good experience and exposure working with a lot of people over a lot of different areas. Internationally, locally and nationally, working on projects that were of significant size. And so I’ve got a pretty good idea on how to work well with other people in those projects and kind of help mutually come to some kind of grounds that works well for everybody.
And I think that, particularly now, we’re in a state of unknown. We don’t really know the full fallout of all the COVID stuff and where the economy’s going to be. So being able to bring maybe a fresh set of eyes and some common sense, and at the same time, it requires, you know, keeping these services open and being able to function within those things and so I think I can work well there.
And then also I work here at the hospital, and I’ve been pretty involved in the community. I work with a significant amount of the technology and everything here, and so just in general being able to work like that.
What would be one of your biggest priorities as a borough assembly member in 2021?
Smalley (District 2): Well, we’re getting ready for winter, number one, and number two, we’re looking at a slow economic recovery for the peninsula, for the whole state for that matter.
It is just going to take time. I’m thinking two to three years of economic recovery, depending upon how long our pandemic is a pandemic. Eventually it will go away, but we have to be careful, we have to follow guidelines and those are the things that we’re doing.
We’ve remodeled or we’re working on the remodel of our assembly chambers to be more in line with the original CDC guidelines. And I say that because the CDC guidelines that are coming out now are not done by the scientists and the doctors at CDC. They’re coming from the Department of Health, and they’re not qualified, but that’s where they’re coming from.
So that’s why I say the original CDC, those guidelines that are in place and I think by following them and just everybody being cautious. And I don’t have a problem wearing a mask. Some people do, they think it’s a violation of their rights, but I can remember even still today, there are places that you go to and it says no T-shirt, no shoes, no service. And I think if a person has a business, they have the right to require a mask. If people don’t, then those people need to take their shopping elsewhere, because they don’t own the store.
Those are some of the things, and then of course we’re in preparation for winter with the roads and road service area board and so on. We have a committee that had met for about a year and a half. It’s called material site committee. And that’s dealing with some of the planning department’s issues, having gravel pits and so on, and what you have with your neighbor, because there’s no zoning within the borough except if the borough sells a piece of property. It attaches the zoning codes to it, and it’s limited, and if a percentage of a neighborhood requests some type of zoning made by vote, they can bring that in there, but that’s the only zoning that there is within the borough versus the City of Kenai that actually has a Planning and Zoning Commission.
Derkevorkian (District 2): Communicating what the residents of Kenai want to the borough assembly. As a constituent of Hal’s the past three years I feel like my concerns have been falling on deaf ears.
Elam (District 5): As far as some of the priorities go, I think going in and listening to what people want. I’ve been working over the last few months here to try and get a better understanding.
You get into this stuff thinking you know a few things here and there, and it’s not until you really kind of start looking under the hood that you start really seeing what all is going on. So those priorities for me would be to help kind of unite some of our community and move forward on, just in general, having a good community.
And I feel like we do have a really good community, but I think that, you know, being able to help in those areas financially with the tough times, I think that would be some of the priorities for me.
One of the things I really want to see happen is I would like to see some younger people become more involved with some of these community events, and the assembly in particular and some of our local government. Like I said, we’ve got a really good thing here and it would be nice to just get some more community involvement. So I think by being involved it gives me a better platform to say, well I’m involved, why don’t you get involved. Let’s all get involved and see where we can take our community.
How do you think the borough has handled the pandemic up to this point?
Smalley (District 2): I think the borough has done an exceptional job. Brenda Ahlberg and her group of folks are working around the clock, seven-day weeks. Monday begins round two of the CARES Act funding, the most recent one.
A lot of businesses have benefited by the dollars that are there. It’s not going to make them fully recover, no, but it will help them get through. In addition, I serve on the Economic Development District. I’m the assembly appointee there, and the EDD is one of those that’s top-notch in the state.
Tim and Caitlin out there have done a heck of a job, and they’ve got a couple of new employees. They received a whole bunch of federal dollars as well through the state, and they’ve processed 280-290 applications within the borough. They’ve handed out nine-and-a-half million dollars, and the average is 35,000 and change. So this is really helping to bring recovery to the local economy, or begin that process.
Recovery, like I say, it’s going to take a long time. It really is. And this is going to help them from closing their doors. So I think it’s been doing very well. We would like to be able to use those funds to be able to replace lost revenues but you can’t do it, because the federal legislation says you can’t do it.
We’ve asked for some changes and our delegation back in D.C. is in fact working on that. And across the state boroughs and cities are saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve got lost sales tax dollars that pay for things.’ In the borough, it’s one of the biggest things that pays for education. Our local share of education is sales tax dollars. What we don’t have available in sales tax dollars, we supplement with property tax dollars.
And so those are the two things that pay for the local share of our school funding, which this time is right at $50 million, is our local share for the school district. So it’s important. We would like to be able to use those dollars because what we can’t use, through the guidelines, we have to return.
Derkevorkian (District 2): I think the borough has done a decent job considering the situation. I really appreciate Mayor (Charlie) Pierce pushing the message that Kenai was open for business during this unprecedented time. ‘Fifteen days to slow the spread’ was almost 200 days ago. … We have not overrun our health care system and we managed to stay much closer to normal than many other places in the state.
Elam (District 5): In general, given the unknown nature of everything, I find it hard to be critical of the things people have done. I don’t think anybody has had anything but the people’s best interests in mind, whether that’s opening things up or shutting things down. I don’t mean to not give a straight answer on that, but in general I feel like they’ve handled it really well.
Given the guidelines that we’ve been given, you know, I mean, we’ve got leadership from the state and federal levels, from the CDC, from everybody. So I feel like, in reality, hindsight is always 20/20. Any one of us can say, you know, I don’t know that I would have handled something this way or that way, but in general I feel like they’ve handled it well.
Is there is there anything that you think the assembly should be doing differently as we move into the end of this year and the beginning of next year related to COVID?
Smalley (District 2): No, I think things are going in the direction they’re supposed to be. One of the resolutions we just passed came out of the mayor’s office and there was great debate on it, but the vote was 7 to 1 in favor of it … basically it was a request from the City of Kenai and the City of Soldotna, which we then encouraged them to contact Homer and Seward to get involved. We heard from Homer but not Seward.
And that is to again, exercise all of these precautions and all the safety guidelines that the CDC has put out about social distancing, about use of masks and being careful not to go into, you know, overcrowded situations, because we’re trying to turn that corner. And I think we’ve kind of turned it, but then there’s little hiccups, little pockets of things pop up. Like the Clarion this morning had an article in there about the three cases on the peninsula, but 109 I think statewide. And it’s been down lower than that. It’s been all the way down to 50. And that’s kind of a turn we’re headed back now, but we have to exercise caution, because it’s a virus. It doesn’t care. It will find the weakest link and explode. So I think we just need to continue to exercise caution.
Derkevorkian (District 2): Schools need to remain open and the borough should do what it can do to support this. Borough residents and property owners are contributing ~$52,000,000 to the KPB School District for FY20 and these services are extremely important to children and families in the community.
Elam (District 5): I like the idea of trying to keep things open, and I really like the idea of people being able to have their personal freedoms and liberties to be able to handle it the way they feel best suited. And I do believe in falling in line with what the mayor and our governor has been doing.
We have a lot of space. Let’s try to be responsible and respectful of everybody. It seems like the whole pandemic has really brought out a lot of extremes. It’s either ‘I don’t care about it’ or ‘I’m just going to sequester myself away.’
So I would like to see our community go more towards the middle, where we don’t have to be completely locked down, but we’re also being responsible if we see these flare-ups and stuff happening. So I think the middle is really kind of a good place for us to be.
We’ve got a lot of small businesses, and we cannot go into another round of economic fallout. We can only get so many bailouts and money from other places. That money’s coming from somewhere, and so we have to be responsible with it and try to keep our economy alive.
In the wintertime and the fall, we’re not known for being a tourist destination down here. So we’ve been able to handle things over the summer and fall with a lot of our in-state tourism, and we still have to be responsible with making sure we don’t create more damage than good. At the same time, we don’t want to cause people to start dying either. I think we have to be responsible.
What are some of your biggest concerns for the borough going into 2021, and how do you plan to address those concerns?
Smalley (District 2): Figuring out the local share of funding to keep our schools quality schools. You know, the things that bring families to the peninsula are the quality of our schools, medical care facilities, services that are available, banking, shopping and roads, and the fact that we have a free landfill, a free dump for residents.
I mean, there are commercial fees they have to pay. They pay a poundage fee when they pick up your garbage, but if an individual drives there with their vehicle, it’s free. And I think we’re the only one in the state, we’re one of the very few across the country that we’ve been able to provide those services.
But there used to be a dump here. There used to be a dump in Seward. There used to be a dump in Homer. And now the major landfill is the one in Soldotna and there’s two cells left there and then they have to expand across the street.
So we’re looking at another potential bond issue in the future to expand the Soldotna one, but also to look at putting one in back in Seward and down in the Homer area, because everything is being shipped to Soldotna right now. So, I’m not sure we have space in Kenai for an expansion of one. I mean, we have rural properties, but you’d have to look at it and see, what is the best use of that property when it’s fertile property before you turn it into a thing that won’t produce revenue.
Derkevorkian (District 2): Navigating through the economic consequences of COVID-19 will undoubtedly be one of the largest issues we face as a borough in 2021. The pandemic and corresponding response has impacted many people’s families, finances and schedules. My focus will be to get our community and residents back to business, while supporting truly common-sense means to keep people safe.
Why should the people in your district elect you to represent them?
Smalley (District 2): I think I’ve done a great job at representing them. I listen. I go out and I do door-to-doors, canvassing, not during an election year. I want to find out what they think of, how I’m working? Am I doing the right thing? What more do I need to be doing? What more do I need to hear? What kind of changes would they like to see?
And I do that and they look at me and they say, ‘Hal, I thought I just voted for you!’ I said, ‘Well, you did. But I just want to find out how you think I’m doing.’
And I’m responsive to people. And again, I think because of my leadership skills and my energy, I think I’m a very well-qualified candidate, and I do have lots of connections across the state and across the country. I serve on two national boards. I’m with the Alaska Municipal League as well. I’m on the board of directors. I’m a former president of the Municipal League. And with that I have become a member of what’s called NACO, National Association of Counties.
The two things that have happened that I think have been beneficial not only to the state, but to our borough, is that we have worked out programs that’s called PILT, payment in lieu of taxes. We have to vote on it every two years. We have to vote in D.C. whether we want to do that. So being connected with that organization, is like if you’re not part of it, then you’re getting it for nothing. And our dues are only like $1,000 a year. It’s money well-spent.
It’s much like the other thing I want to work on, and we’ve got it in place now, because it’s taken us a little over a year to get it there. And that is internet sales tax. We are now collecting internet sales tax. We just spent $200,000 because there’s only I think 29 boroughs and/or communities that are involved in this process right now. And so for the software to get it all set up, bringing personnel on to manage the program, it costs enough money. And so we just spent $200,000, but we’re going to collect $1 million. I think that’s money well-spent.
And so those are a couple accomplishments I think that have been very, very beneficial and part of it has to do with the fact that I have had those connections with Municipal League, which our borough is a member of by the way, but I serve on that board and I serve on those two national boards.
Derkevorkian (District 2): If you feel you haven’t been represented well for the past three years in the borough assembly, then it’s time for a change. Voting for the incumbent will only yield more of the same results. I look forward to being the conservative voice for those who feel they aren’t being heard.