With less than a week to go until the municipal election, two of the three candidates vying for the Nikiski seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly participated Monday in a candidate forum held at the Soldotna Public Library.
The forum was the fourth of nine forums being hosted by The Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters. Over the course of 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.
Voters on Tuesday will pick representatives on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and school board and decide the fate of multiple ballot measures.
There are three candidates running for the assembly’s District 3 – Nikiski seat this year. One of the candidates is Chase Griffith, who was unable to participate in Monday’s forum. Griffith owns a cannabis company and currently serves on the state Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. He is a graduate of Nikiski Middle/High School with experience in the oil industry.
Participating in person at Monday’s forum were incumbent assembly member Jesse Bjorkman and Dil Uhlin.
Bjorkman, who is also running to represent the central and northern Kenai Peninsula in the Alaska State Senate, is a teacher at Nikiski/Middle High School and has represented Nikiski on the assembly since 2019. Uhlin is the current director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Roads Department and is a small business owner and retired U.S. Army Warrant Officer.
When it comes to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Bjorkman and Uhlin were generally on the same page. Both support the $65.5 million school maintenance bond package up for consideration by borough voters and think the borough should continue to fund the district at the maximum allowable.
“The bond package is necessary,” Uhlin said. “All the items on that list will help chip away at the deferred maintenance program.”
Bjorkman agreed and said a building management plan current being created at the borough level will help address maintenance needs going forward. Taking care of major maintenance and giving the school district the funding its needs ensures educational opportunities for students, he said.
“Since the crash in oil prices in 2015, and cuts that have been made to education as a result of inflation, as a result of increasing health insurance costs and as a result of flat funding from our state Legislature, the school district has had to make hard choices,” Bjorkman said. “Unfortunately, with flat funding means less educational opportunities for kids.”
Candidates were also asked about Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s resignation — which is effective Friday — and a subsequent assembly statement that said Pierce was asked to consider resigning as part of a resolution to an allegation of harassment made against him.
Sitting assembly members voted 7-2 on Sept. 6 to appoint Mike Navarre, who is a two-time former mayor and former state lawmaker, as interim mayor. Navarre’s appointment has faced pushback from some who felt the process left out members of the public, while others say a majority of assembly members agreed on Navarre as the best path forward.
Bjorkman said Monday that the assembly was put in a “bad position” by Pierce’s resignation and that borough employees needed a leader in place. As it relates to the assembly statement released regarding Pierce, Bjorkman said he’d like to see some structural changes made to how the borough discloses settlements paid with public funds.
“Moving forward, I think that it’s important that we recognize that when we have an elected mayor — that is not a borough employee — that there certainly is a difference there in HR investigations and how accountability works,” Bjorkman said. “When the only accountability method for an executive like that is recall, then the standard then becomes different and the necessity for that amount of information becomes much different so that the people can engage in a process and hold someone accountable if needed for their actions.”
Uhlin said he puts a lot of weight on the opinion of the borough’s legal department to determine what information should or should not be public. As a borough employee, he said he was satisfied with Navarre’s appointment from an operations perspective. As a voter, however, he said he would have liked to see the assembly delay the vote and better engage the public.
“I believe that the assembly members were stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Uhlin said. “I think postponing a week or two may have ended up in the same results and might have given a little more transparency to the situation. But, overall, the decision that they made is the decision they made, and it will positively affect operations from day to day at the borough.”
Bjorkman and Uhlin said the borough should continue to work with the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District to boost economic development on the Kenai Peninsula and said they support the Alaska LNG Project. That project would move gas from the North Slope to a liquefaction facility in Nikiski.
Uhlin said the stars are aligned for the project to finally happen and that Nikiski would benefit in more ways than one. Bjorkman said he supports the project, which he said would bring new jobs and resource development to the area, but that the borough needs to ensure it has the infrastructure it needs to support that operation.
“Having the road capacity and traffic availability to allow folks to get past the plant and to and from their homes every day is going to be a big deal,” Bjorkman said. “For folks that were around for the oil pipeline boom in the ‘70s, they certainly have heard stories with the snarled traffic in Fairbanks and Anchorage as the pipeline was being built. We have to anticipate those kinds of rushes and bottlenecks and work to build infrastructure to avoid them.”
Both candidates said they support further extension of the North Road. Uhlin said he’s actively working with the North Road Extension Advisory Task Force to evaluate further expansion, which he said residents in the area “overwhelmingly” support. Bjorkman said he supports extension, but that remote infrastructure needs to be maintained “in a responsible way.”
Election day is Oct. 4 and in-person absentee voting began Sept. 19. Monday’s full board of education candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page and on KDLL’s website at kdll.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.