The four candidates vying for seats on the Soldotna City Council convened Tuesday evening at the Soldotna Public Library for a forum that highlighted the city’s economic, community and operational issues.
The forum was the second 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.
Dave Carey and Erick Hugarte are running for Seat D on the council. Carey is a former Kenai Peninsula Borough and Soldotna mayor and has held Seat D since 2019. He also previously served on the council from 1998 to 2001. Hugarte is a former Soldotna City Council member and has also served on the city’s planning and zoning commission, as well as on the parks and recreation advisory board.
Lisa Parker and Garrett Dominick are running for Seat E on the council. Parker currently serves as Soldotna’s vice mayor and sits on the University of Alaska Board of Regents. She has been on the city council since 2016 and previously served from 2002 to 2007. Dominick is a member of Alaska’s State Vocational Rehabilitation Committee and is the vice president of Peer Power, a statewide nonprofit organization with a stated goal of empowering people with disabilities.
Candidates were asked about the city’s response to a controversial drag performance held in June at Soldotna Creek Park as part of the 2022 Soldotna Pride in the Park event. Many community members have called on the city to review its park policies because of what they say is the sexually provocative nature of the performance, while others say the performance is expression protected by the First Amendment.
Hugarte has been a vocal critic of the city’s response to the backlash and to what he says is a lack of action on the part of the city to address obscenity in the city’s park policies. Parker pointed out Tuesday that city analysis of the existing policy found that it was last updated 50 years ago and that, in and of itself, warrants review. Dominick said he’d look for a way to compromise.
“Everyone has rights — equal rights,” Dominick said. “I would consider looking at the park regulations and seeing if maybe there is a possible in between, that we can maybe agree on.”
Candidates had different ideas about the way the City of Soldotna could partner with other borough municipalities to solve common problems. Parker drew attention to the central peninsula’s homeless population and the limits of the single shelter in Nikiski, while Dominick highlighted a lack of affordable transportation in the area — particularly for people with disabilities. Hugarte said the city should collaborate to combat drug use on the central peninsula.
“It’s killing a lot of people and it’s causing a lot of problems in our community,” Hugarte said of fentanyl. “If communities can work together and come with the process, come with the program, something that we can do to help out, I believe that it would just make all of us much more stronger.”
Candidates also had different approaches for how to make Soldotna competitive amid widespread worker shortages. Multiple Soldotna businesses experienced workforce shortages over the summer, Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Shanon Davis has told council members.
Carey proposed doing away with the city’s property taxes, which he said are a source of surplus income for the city, while Parker suggested strengthening the relationships between local businesses and the programs offered at Kenai Peninsula College. Hugarte said the city needs to continue being friendly to new businesses. Dominick said the team at the State Vocational Rehabilitation Committee are also actively working to increase the number of people with disabilities participating in Alaska’s workforce.
“I would encourage the businesses here in the Soldotna area to … talk to the college about ways that the Kenai Peninsula College can work with them to get workers and get workers trained,” Parker said.
Candidates generally agreed that there’s more work to be done when it comes to the city’s spruce bark beetle outbreak. As of 2020, more than 150,000 acres of forest had been impacted by spruce bark beetle infection on the Kenai Peninsula, including about 21,000 acres of forested land between Cooper Landing, Kenai and Soldotna, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Hugarte proposed redistributing some of the city’s felled trees as cords of wood to people in need this winter, while Carey suggested providing more financial support for individuals who want to take down dangerous trees, but lack the means to do so.
“We’re very much proactive,” Carey said. “We’re looking at it — we’re looking at city facilities, particularly, (and) I would like to see us reach out to be more proactive to help residents in the city get rid of some of their trees.”
Election day is Oct. 4 and absentee voting begins Sept. 19. Tuesday’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.