Assembly mulls changes to service area boards

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday discussed major changes to how members of the various borough service area boards would be placed in their positions.

 

At its regular meeting, assembly members mulled Ordinance 2012-07, which would have all area service board members appointed to their seats instead of the current election and appointment system.

The ordinance was introduced by assembly member Linda Murphy, who is championing it as a way to encourage residents to be more involved in the political process and save the borough money. Several residents, however, testified to the assembly Tuesday that passing such an ordinance would trump their right to vote and lead to less diversification among service area board members.

The ordinance will be up for public comment again at the borough assembly's April 17 meeting in Seward and its regular Soldotna meeting May 1, after an amendment offered by assembly member Charlie Pierce postponed the vote.

According to the ordinance, the borough currently has 14 service area boards all of which -- save for the road service area board -- are voted on in an election process each October with the regular borough election. The borough is one of the few in Alaska that does so.

"Appointed boards may increase public interest in service on a board as potential board members would not have to run, or otherwise comply with the election process requirements, and ... changing from the elected service area boards to appointed boards will significantly reduce the time and expense involved in borough elections," the ordinance reads.

The borough clerk's office has indicated the ordinance, if passed, would save "thousands of dollars" by reducing printing costs and time required for election judges and clerks to review and verify ballots.

Under the current system, vacancies -- from resignations during a term or from no candidates filing to run for a seat -- are filled by the borough clerk re-advertising the position again for 25 days and receiving and verifying any incoming applications. Those applications are then sent to the seated service area board members who vote to fill the vacancies. The mayor and the assembly are not part of the current process, borough clerk Johni Blankenship said.

Under the ordinance, Murphy said, the clerk would advertise the position, just as it does for an election. Applications, available in the clerk's office, would be filled out and filed with the clerk, who then verifies them and passes them on to the service area board and to the borough mayor.

Then the mayor would then consider recommendations from the service area board before making an appointment, which would ultimately come back to the assembly for confirmation, Murphy said.

"If we want to encourage people to participate in government, maybe we need to make it a little bit easier for them to get their feet wet," she said.

Nikiski resident Mae Leighton, a member of the Nikiski Fire Service Area board, testified against the measure, along with 10 others.

"My problem with this ordinance is that in one vote of this assembly you take away my rights as a citizen to elect who I want to represent me via the ballot box," she said during the meeting.

Anchor Point resident Reuben Sherwood said the appointment only process would likely result in a limited pool of applicants and also cause other problems.

"Most of the people that I know aren't involved in politics, most of the people I know aren't really involved in the community and I would like to get them involved in the service area," he said. "But, when they do want to get involved, going for some of these seats that are unopposed is a way for them to serve their community where they wouldn't otherwise and some of them will go further and become more involved. But if you take away a person's reason to get involved, then you are going to have fewer and fewer members of the community involved in the community process."

Sherwood also questioned whether the move would take away his independence on the board, or if he would feel pressures from the mayor to do and say certain things, he said.

"If it is elected, it is up to my constituents if they like what I said," he said. "If I am not elected, if I don't agree with the mayor, he just won't reappoint me."

Murphy said she "just can't imagine" a mayor only appointing "his friends" to the board. She also reiterated the appointments would have to be verified by the assembly.

"I keep hearing that, 'Oh, well we have a good mayor now and we are not worried about his appointments, but what if we have some nut job?'" Murphy said. "Well what if we only have nut jobs running for seats unopposed? That can happen as well."

Assembly member Brent Johnson mentioned the idea of putting the ordinance on the ballot and letting a vote of the borough, or even each service area, decide what it wanted.

"When something like this comes forward, the people that hate it come out and speak and I don't know if what I'm hearing tonight is what everybody is saying, well then my gosh I want to do what the people want to do," he said. "We will just vote it down. But if these are the voices of the people that are now involved and everybody that kind of would like it is just sitting back and not saying anything, well then I would like to know that, too. For me a vote of the people would be dandy."

Assembly member Ray Tauriainen echoed a similar sentiment.

"I do feel this one is important enough that I would rather see each service area vote on how they want to select their voters whether it be by election or by appointment," he said. "I'd like to see that on the fall ballot."

Murphy disagreed.

"I would strongly object to taking this to a vote of the people because ... we are a representative democracy, we are not a direct democracy," she said. " ... I do not believe that everything should go to the voters just because we are uncomfortable making a decision."

Assembly member Hal Smalley questioned the value of saving money and time over voters' rights.

"I am for saving dollars, I really am, but at what cost in this case?" he said. "The cost is the loss of a public vote. To me that's too great of a cost to pay.

"We have a process in place, it seems to be working, yes there are some open seats and sometimes there are a lot of only one person running, that's just the way it is. If the community doesn't like it then they need to run a candidate or candidates."

Assembly member Mako Haggerty said when he first saw the ordinance it "seemed to make sense at many different levels"

But claims it was directed solely as taking voting rights away from people is "really far from the case."

"This was conceived with very good intentions and it should be treated like that," he said.

Assembly president Gary Knopp said the body will likely vote on the matter at its May 1 meeting, but isn't bound to that time frame. The assembly meets again at 7 p.m. April 17 in Seward.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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