On Wednesday, members of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce heard two of the candidates for Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor — Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings and current Mayor Charlie Pierce — answer questions about campaign issues. This is part three of the coverage of the forum. Merrill Sikorski moderated the forum. Chamber members submitted questions ahead of the event.
A third candidate for mayor, Troy Nightingale, was invited to the forum but did not attend.
Looking back over the last three years as borough mayor, what issues would you have handled differently?
Pierce: I will say that, being a mayor, if I’ve learned anything you have to be a generalist. You have to be able to adjust and adapt to conditions and you have to do it quickly. Maybe having more time and opportunity to evaluate conditions and circumstances and gathering better information would have created better outcomes. But I would say, overall, I have been up to the task. I have enjoyed the opportunities and the variety and the daily exchange of ideas and processes, and I’ve certainly learned along the way. I would say I’ll continue to do that as your mayor and seek and strive for better outcomes as we work together.
Farnsworth-Hutchings: Well, I would have handled them in a completely different way. I work very well, one-on-one, with everybody. I believe in having management meetings once a week so that you can deal with all of your department heads to see what’s going on in their departments. And making sure that your employees feel like they are appreciated and are doing the most that they can do. And the only way they can do that is if you’re there with them and they don’t feel like they are being reprimanded because of something that you don’t care for. I have worked in a lot of situations where I might not necessarily like the person that’s sitting next to me, whether it’s on a board or in my job or a number of items, but I always know that they’re bringing something to the table that is worthwhile, and I will work with them.
Should there be any changes at the borough level to the state annexation process?
Farnsworth-Hutchings: I think that the process has been in place by state statute for years, and that is the way it has to be handled. The cities and, of course, the borough assembly and the mayor have their input, but it is still down to the Alaska state boundary commission.
Pierce: I think what we can limit, or what we can agree to as a community, first and foremost in our governments, is that we’re going to let the voice of the people be heard. I think that in the annexation examples I’ve dealt with, the voice I hear in this community, is that you want the right to vote. You want an opportunity to vote on the impacts on your property. And you have councils and an assembly that agreed with me, sent a resolution forward that said ‘we agree with the process. We don’t disagree with the process of annexation, but what we would do is we want you to give the people that are out there pounding the streets and hollering at you the right to vote’. And at the state level it needs to be changed because what you can do to circumvent the system at a local level, is you can just go to the boundary commission and do the legislative process. And then that’s pretty much a rubber stamp from what I’ve learned, unless you testify or get involved and engaged in that. As individuals, you have a hard time convincing that group of folks to change their mind.
What is your position on the mail-in ballot proposition for the borough?
Farnsworth-Hutchings: I think it’s up to the people to decide. It’s on the ballot, and that’s where it needs to be. But I do want to make one comment in addition that. It’s amazing to me that we’re having all of this conversation about something that’s sitting on the borough website saying it’s safe, and we’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’ve voted all three ways: I’ve voted absentee. I did early voting, and I’ve voted in person. And I think that sometimes there are some scare tactics that are employed. We have six precincts right now that are all mail-in. And this isn’t a national issue, this is just for our borough. So I think, you know, it’s up to the voters.
Pierce: We didn’t need to do this to ourselves. You can apply for an absentee ballot today. What you have is, you’re going to receive, what they’re trying to do is change it so that everybody is forced to vote by mail. And they talk about the other options as well. Well, you know, they’ve been trying to push vote-by-mail for a number of years. You voted on this before, and you said no. Again, how many times do you have to vote on it before they get it? I don’t know. Maybe every two years they’ll bring it back to you and ask you whether you want to do this. You can vote by mail today. Just request an absentee ballot. It works very well. It does. It works well.
What type of changes do you anticipate for the borough’s solid waste and transfer site, given that garbage collection is one of the responsibilities of the borough?
Pierce: You know, the liners are not cheap, and the codes and regulations that are placed on solid waste facilities are ever-growing. Every year you get new information from the federal government that you have to do an additional task or handle something differently. One of the things that you may see, a big change may actually come if we can find the financing and the money behind it, is to take some of the natural gas that we’re producing in our facility. And we’ve worked on a design plan in cooperation with Homer Electric to actually take some of that and use that gas stream to handle the evaporation that we have, as well as generating some electricity — do some sharing there and actually generate some revenue for our solid waste facility versus just expense. But in the years to come, we’re going to have to handle the production natural gas, that would be the big one I think.
Farnsworth-Hutchings: Well, I think we have been working with HEA on some of those programs, but more than that, I’ve stopped by and looked at the transfer stations, and this is where I have issues. There are things being dumped into those dumpsters that, if you delivered to the borough dump, you would not be able to drop them off, or there would be special locations for them. Paints, oil, gasoline, whatever. And these dumpsters, as was said, do not have liners, so it is seeping into the soil. And a couple of the transfer stations I looked at are very close to bodies of water. So I think this is something that needs to be addressed quickly.
Recent borough assembly discussions have revolved around what the role of the mayor and the assembly should be. What do you see as the executive and legislative responsibilities within the borough?
Pierce: I’ve had fun being mayor. I’ve been your voice, and you elected me to be your voice. They tried to take it out of a ‘strong mayor’ concept and create a manager form of government. And if I could be a critic for a moment, to the cities, I think that’s what’s wrong with our cities: that you have a manager form of government in your cities. And if you had a strong mayor in each one of your cities you might see different results as well. The average length of service for a city manager is about five years. The average length of my service as your mayor would be less than three years had it been the other way around, because your voice was heard through me. And I would encourage you to always protect that right. I will always protect it as a resident of this borough, to have a strong mayor speak on behalf of you, because I say what needs to be said. I’m comfortable doing that, and I’m comfortable debating those issues, and I always will be.
Farnsworth-Hutchings: I really do not like watching all of the picking back and forth. I think that you should be able to collaborate with your assembly. I think there should be good discussions, and I don’t seem to feel the same way, that the borough mayor is the only voice. There are nine assembly members. They all have a voice. So there are 10 people that are speaking for you, and I think that that’s a good way to do it.
The State of Alaska has established a work group that is considering consolidating the state’s 911 dispatch answering points and reassigning all dispatches to a single location. How would this impact rural residents in the borough?
Farnsworth-Hutchings: From what I understood they were going to be moving the 911 dispatch, so I was under the impression that they were working to keep here. But on the original proposal, they were moving it either to Anchorage or the Mat-Su. What was going to happen is that you would put your call into 911, it would go to one of those two locations, and then they would decide how to dispatch it. If it was going to be a trooper, they bounce that back to the trooper dispatch area. Otherwise if it was a fire, then it was just going to come back and be dispatched locally. The problem with that is that you’re losing time. And the other problem is that they didn’t have the infrastructure for all of these areas to be able to make it work with all the different phone companies, GCI, ACS and any of the other smaller ones in the outlying areas.
Pierce: Not a good idea. Basically it takes five different dispatch centers and keeps them here at a cost of $300,000 a day to us. You and I. It’s a cost-shift measure. It’s a control measure that the state Department of Public Safety wants to take on, and what it does, we still need dispatchers here at this center. Calls will come in to our center. Those dispatchers will take those calls and forward them to a state dispatch center. More than 70% of every call that comes in to our center is trooper-related. It’s a bad, bad idea. It’s growing government at the worst time. It just adds another level. We pick up all of the state’s dispatches as well as the ones we have today, and at the end of the day we’re going to pick up somewhere between five and eight additional employees, and it could cost us as much as a million dollars out of pocket at a local level. Not a good idea.