The five candidates vying for open seats on the Kenai City Council convened Monday at the Soldotna Public Library for the first of nine candidate forums hosted by The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters.
For 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.
Candidates Brian Gabriel and Teea Winger are both running in Kenai’s mayoral race. Gabriel is the current mayor of Kenai and is a former Kenai City Council member. Winger is a current city council member and was elected to the body in 2020.
Candidates Victoria Askin, Alex Douthit and Glenese Pettey are vying for two openings on the city council. Current council member and Kenai Vice Mayor Jim Glendening did not file to run for reelection. Askin and Douthit both currently serve on the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission — Douthit as vice chair. Askin is also a former council member, while Pettey is a current council member.
Candidates proposed different ways of bringing new business and development to the city. Gabriel emphasized the importance of stabilizing Kenai’s bluff, while Winger and Pettey underscored the potential of the city’s newly minted land inventory to maximize the value of its land.
Alex Douthit said that, speaking from experience, he thinks the city’s permitting process could be better.
“As a small business owner, I’m kind of right in the middle of all that trying to develop our own property in the city,” Douthit said. “(I’m) making lots of notes as we go through the process to help streamline that process and make it more promising and inviting for new businesses that want to develop those lands.”
When asked where they want to see the City of Kenai in five years, Askin envisioned a boardwalk and more beachfront recreational opportunities while Pettey pictured a bike path along Bridge Access Road. Winger described a city splash park and the expansion of vocational training opportunities for city youth, whereas Douthit imagined more businesses.
Most candidates were in agreement on one project, however: bluff erosion.
“In five years, I see the bluff erosion project absolutely completed,” Pettey said. “I see a beautiful space down there where people can come and create and be there to walk along that bluff place such that it’s all stabilized.”
“I see the bluff erosion project complete or near completion,” Askin said.
“Five years from now, when the bluff erosion project is done, completed, (we want to see) investment in Old Town — from Old Town all the way up the river to the (Pacific Star Seafoods) area, through Millennium Square,” said Gabriel.
The project, which has been in the works for decades, aims to stabilize roughly 5,000 feet of bluff on the north shore of the Kenai River, starting from the mouth of the river and ending near Pacific Star Seafoods.
The project got a major boost from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who secured $28 million for it through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who successfully proposed $6.5 million for the project in the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget.
In addition to that funding, the City of Kenai was on the receiving end of millions of dollars in federal aid supplied during the COVID-19 pandemic, including about $10.4 million through the CARES Act and about $2 million through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Most candidates Monday said the city has spent that money well, though some said there are a few things they would have done differently.
Winger, for example, said she ran on the COVID funding issue when she first sought a seat on the council in 2020. She was a vocal proponent of using funds ultimately put toward offsetting payroll costs to build on a city program that incentivized shopping at Kenai businesses. Not everyone, Winger said Monday, was eligible to participate in the other programs the city offered.
“Realistically, even though we did three rounds of business grants and some fishing grants, not all households qualified for that stuff,” Winger said.
When it comes to addressing constituent concerns, all candidates were in agreement that it’s important to be accessible. Some said follow-through on questions is important, while others said council debate is another option. All provided examples of different times when they overcame differences to work together and proposed ways the city can glean best practices from other municipalities.
Election day is Oct. 4. The deadline to register to vote or update voter registration information is Sept. 4 and absentee voting begins Sept. 19. Monday’s full Kenai City Council 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.