The Soldotna City Council reiterated during their Wednesday night meeting their recommendation that Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings be appointed to a vacancy on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission.
The move is the latest development in a monthslong recruitment and appointment process, which has seen the City of Soldotna clash with the borough over the procedure. The back-and-forth has resulted in efforts by Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce to codify a different selection process and a push back against those efforts by borough municipalities.
Representatives from five of the borough’s incorporated communities — Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward and Seldovia — are given seats on the borough’s 11-member planning commission. Representatives from those communities rotate among four seats on the commission, with Soldotna next up in the rotation.
The City of Soldotna advertised for the vacancy earlier this year and only received one application for consideration — from Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, who also serves on the Soldotna City Council and ran against Pierce in the 2020 borough mayoral race. The Soldotna City Council approved legislation on June 9 recommending Farnsworth-Hutchings to the borough for the vacancy.
Pierce proceeded to send letters to cities informing them that the borough would also advertise for the position over a 30-day period ending on Aug. 8, according to records obtained by the Clarion. The borough received three applications during that time from Farnsworth-Hutchings on July 13, from Judith Queen on July 17 and from Michael Horton on July 24.
Alaska State Statute, which describes membership apportionment on the borough’s planning commission, says that in filling a city’s vacant seat on the commission, the borough mayor must pick someone to fill the vacancy from a “list of recommendations.”
However, Pierce clashed with borough assembly member Tyson Cox, who represents Soldotna, during the assembly’s Aug. 3 meeting over what a “list” is. Pierce said that one name didn’t count as a “list” as required by statute, while Cox said the council’s recommendation of Farnsworth-Hutchings fulfilled that requirement.
Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney restated the council’s recommendation of Farnsworth-Hutchings to the vacancy and highlighted past examples of Pierce forwarding a name for consideration from a lone applicant.
“The subsequent KPB advertising does not require the City of Soldotna to reconsider the original recommended candidate for appointment,” Whitney wrote.
Whitney went on to say that the city advertised for the vacancy the way they have in the past and that the “current administration” at the borough has accepted and forwarded a single candidate for other cities, including from the City of Seldovia in 2018, Kenai and Homer in 2018 and Seward in 2020.
“The City of Soldotna in good faith followed the procedures consistent with previous actions taken to fill this vacancy,” Whitney wrote.
Concurrently, Pierce has been working on legislation that would change borough code such that the borough, not cities, would recommend candidates for vacancies. That legislation has only been drafted and hasn’t been introduced before the assembly.
The draft ordinance says that borough administration anticipates changing the process would be a “bridge” to discussing other cost savings and efficiency opportunities between the borough and cities, according to a copy of the ordinance obtained by the Clarion.
“All residents of the borough eligible to serve … should be able to apply for open planning commission seats,” the draft ordinance says.
Pierce said during the Aug. 3 assembly meeting that some cities select a candidate without advertising for the vacancy and that shifting the process to the borough would eliminate discrimination by allowing anyone in the borough to apply for commission vacancies.
Borough Planning Director Melanie Aeschliman told the Clarion earlier this month that seats are sometimes treated differently depending on whether or not they’re for city or at-large appointments. Taking the process to the borough, she said, would mean that all seats are treated the same.
The proposed ordinance only outlines four cities for seats, according to the draft: Homer, Kenai, Seward and Soldotna. Currently, Seldovia is included in that rotation and borough code does not identify specific city seats.
“The borough administration expects residents of the City of Seldovia to continue to apply for open seats on the borough’s planning commission to the great benefit of the entire borough community,” the draft says.
Every member of the Soldotna City Council voted to reiterate the city’s recommendation that Farnsworth-Hutchings fill the vacancy, with Farnsworth-Hutchings abstaining from the vote.
“I believe … our process is the proper way to do it,” Whitney said during Wednesday’s meeting. “We only had one applicant, and that was Ms. Hutchings.”
Wednesday’s full meeting of the Soldotna City Council can be found on the city’s website at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.