Residents hoping to address Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce about proposed budget cuts were disappointed last week when the mayor failed to show at the April 2 borough assembly meeting.
“I wanted to address the mayor,” Casey Eberle from Anchor Point said at the meeting. “He motivated me to be here today.”
“I hope the mayor is listening online somewhere,” Matt Fischer, a teacher in the school district for the last 17 years, said at the meeting.
Assembly Vice President Dale Bagley, a former borough mayor, also questioned the mayor’s absence.
“I am really not happy that he’s not here for the testimony that was heard today,” Bagley said at the meeting. “We sat through it and we’re going to have to make decisions and I really think the mayor should have been here for it. I don’t think you should schedule vacations during budget time.”
When asked for comment, the mayor’s office said Pierce would not be in until the week of April 15. Chief of Staff James Baisden said he preferred not to discuss in a public forum when or where elected officials are, why they are gone or for how long.
“My main concern is for the safety of our elected members, their homes, and for the families,” Baisden said in an email. “This was a trip planned months in advance, and should not be an issue no more than if you or I were to go on a trip during Spring Break.”
During the meeting, which included nearly three hours of public comment, citizens spoke up in opposition to the governor’s proposed cuts and called for the borough and the mayor to take a stand against them.
“Our mayor says that we better embrace these appalling cuts, and I can’t help but think ‘I’m an American and we fight for what we believe, and I have to stand up here and speak to the infinite negative ramifications these cuts will impose,’” Summer Birch, a parent from Anchor Point, told the assembly.
Many of the speakers were referencing comments that Pierce made in a March 8 Facebook Live video, in which the mayor told residents to “embrace cuts.”
“I’ve asked the community of the Kenai Peninsula Borough to embrace these changes, because I believe as a community, if we embrace the changes, accept the fact that we’re going to be a part of the solution to the overall problem in the state of Alaska, we’ll do a better job,” Pierce said in the March 8 video.
In the video, Pierce gave a general borough update, the borough’s upcoming comprehensive plan and local budget cuts.
Pierce said if the borough funded the school district to the cap, it “wouldn’t make a real big difference.”
Conrad Woodhead, principal of Chapman School in Anchor Point, said during the meeting that he disagrees with the mayor’s stance that funding to the cap won’t make any difference.
“I’m not sure if funding to the max will save our school, but it might,” Woodhead said.
During his public testimony, George Pierce of Kasilof commended the mayor for his comments.
“I applaud Charlie Pierce for standing his ground,” he said.
Eberle said he wondered why the mayor was absent from the meeting.
“I wonder why the mayor isn’t here today,” Eberle said. “I find that interesting. The mayor’s very bold and proud comments he posted online where he challenged the teachers here — who are getting ready to lose their job, getting ready to have to move — to embrace these cuts … that motivated me to come here.”
Bagley said the felt the mayor’s Facebook comments had “probably inflamed the situation just a little bit.”
At the end of the public comment period, Carrie Henson of Soldotna encouraged residents to speak up.
“Based on the comments I’ve heard tonight of the mayor’s behavior when he speaks with citizens, I think it speaks to the integrity that he has … Our mayor has asked us to stand down, but I say it is our civic duty to do the exact opposite,” Henson said at the meeting.
Assembly member Kelly Cooper encouraged residents to work together.
“Regarding the issues that we’re dealing with with the school district funding and concerns about the borough — I will not stand down,” Cooper said. “I will stand up and I will not allow this division to continue.