Kenai Council postpones vote on commission change

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to give the correct date of the future Council vote on the ordinance. 

An ordinance sponsored by Mayor Pat Porter at the Kenai City Council’s Wednesday meeting would have allowed up to two non-Kenai residents to sit on the seven-member Planning and Zoning commission “if they either own property or a business located within the city.”

The Kenai City Council amended the ordinance to allow only a non-resident business-owner to sit on the commission, then postponed voting on it until their meeting on July 15.

Members of Kenai commissions and committees are appointed by the mayor from a pool of applicants and confirmed by the city council. Currently, the only encoded requirements for holding a commission or committee seat are residency in Kenai, and not being an officer or employee of the city.

In a memo attached to the ordinance, Porter wrote that she wanted to change the requirements because “interest by City residents in serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission has historically been low” and that allowing non-resident property and business owners on the commission would “make it easier to find interested qualified commissioners.” In her memo, Porter also said that the planning and zoning commission of Soldotna currently allows one non-resident member, and Homer allows two.

Before going before the council, the ordinance was debated at a May 27 meeting by the planning and zoning commission, which unanimously voted to not recommend it to the council.

Three members of the public testified in opposition to the ordinance. In response to speaker Pat Falkenberg, who said that she had made an unsuccessful application to the commission, Porter said that in many cases applicants are unsuccessful as a result of procedure rather than a decision by herself or the council. The Kenai clerk’s office holds committee and commission applications for a year before automatically discarding them if there is no vacancy on the applied-for commission or committee within that time.

Council member Henry Knackstedt moved to return the ordinance to planning and zoning discussion, saying that two planning and zoning commissioners had independently asked him to do so because they had not had time to adequately discuss it or receive public input. Knackstedt said that if given back to the commission, he’d want the ordinance to return for the council’s vote on their July 1 meeting.

Knackstedt’s motion wasn’t seconded, although council member Brian Gabriel said he also intended to return the ordinance to the commission, but to do so after amending it. Because a council re-hearing of the ordinance on the July 1 meeting had already been moved and denied, Gabriel said he would propose the July 22 council meeting for the rehearing.

Although Gabriel said he was opposed to the ordinance as currently written, he did not “think it’s a bad idea to have one seat available for one business owner that wouldn’t necessarily be designated as a business-owner seat, but could be.” He proposed an amendment that would permit a single non-resident Kenai business-owner to hold a commission seat, and removed the language allowing a non-resident property owner without a business on the commission.

“I oppose the amendment because I oppose the ordinance,” council member Bob Molloy said. “I think it’s bad policy to have non-residents making decisions that affect the city of Kenai. … And I think the premise for the ordinance itself is faulty. I think there is interest by city residents in serving on the commission.”

Council member Terry Bookey supported the amendment because “one member is better than two, although I don’t support non-residents at all.”

Gabriel said that non-resident business owners could have enough interest in the city to legitimize a seat on the Planning and Zoning commission.

“If you ask them (business owners), they’d say they have a significant financial investment, and they’d say they pay taxes for our city. So I don’t think we should discount their viewpoint,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel’s amendment passed, with Molloy voting no.

Council member Tim Navarre said he was in favor of sending the amended ordinance back to the planning and zoning commission. He said that many non-Kenai residents were nonetheless active in the community and had “a huge impact.”

“They do things in the community, they help youth organizations, they do different things,” Navarre said. “Our city can’t be exclusive, and I’m glad it’s not. … All the people we want to come into our community to do business or start businesses here, it’s very important that they at least don’t feel excluded. This isn’t an elected position, it’s an appointed position. If that nomination comes up, the council still gets to say yay or nay, so they get to make sure it’s a good choice, just like we do with residents that apply.”

Council members Ryan Marquis and Terry Bookey said they would prefer to vote the ordinance down rather than postpone it.

“I don’t support the ordinance, and if it passes, I can’t imagine a position where I’d vote to confirm the appointment of a nominee that was a non-resident of the city,” Marquis said.

Bookey said that the interest of a business owner in the city was not necessarily strong enough to merit a commission seat. The ordinance specified that a non-resident could have a commission seat “if they have a controlling ownership interest in a business physically located in the city.” Bookey said this language could include the owner of a leased or vacant storefront in Kenai, whose stake in the well-being of the community may be minimal.

“We could probably have a pretty animated debate over whether business owners hold the best interests for the communities they do business in,” Bookey said. “I think this is a course down the wrong direction, and maybe our planning and zoning members should be elected and not appointed.”

Countering Bookey’s example, Knackstedt pointed out that the current residency requirement could also allow a minimally-interested party onto the commission if they merely rented a vacant Kenai apartment and had mail delivered there.

“I think the thought of having a business owner who has more invested into our city would have more weight, perhaps,” Knackstedt said. “It depends on the individual that would apply.”

Gabriel’s motion to refer the ordinance to the planning and zoning commission and postpone a council vote until July 22 passed, with Marquis, Molloy, and Bookey voting against it.

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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