As the man with control of the microphone, Gary Knopp regularly invites criticism when he asks for public testimony late on Tuesday nights.
But Knopp, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president, said he has learned to shoulder the bulls-eye placed on his and the assembly’s back — public criticism and praise of the assembly’s actions are an essential ingredient in the public process, he said.
Plus, he’s had years of similar experience in and outside of the assembly chambers.
“You know, you start right here at the coffee table,” he said pointing back to a group of men bellied up and slouched back grumbling amongst themselves between slurps Friday morning at Louie’s. “Your buddies do it to you every morning and you’re pretty immune to it. But, you know, this is the best place to get beat up, right here among your friends.”
However, Knopp contends he will leave his tenure on the assembly “unscathed” after six years, two as assembly president. During that time, Knopp has seen a number of contentious borough issues, most recently including implementation and redefinition of term limits, several local health care controversies, consternation surrounding the anadromous streams ordinance, discussions of local taxation levels and managing the borough’s budget.
“I’ve never had a moment’s regret — it has been a very educational experience and I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” said the 55-year-old owner of G&H Construction. “It is a lot of frustration, occasionally rewarding, always educational.”
After his final assembly meeting on Tuesday, Knopp will walk away from borough politics and not look back — those issues can consume and will likely never change, he said. During his time on the body he previously never thought he’d serve on, he has voted unpredictably — he said he doesn’t make up his mind until the last minute. When there is a no vote among members he is often among those dissenting. He agreed that he has stuck to his convictions when others either on the assembly or in the public have rolled their eyes.
He was one of only two members to vote against the anadromous stream protection ordinance, he once gathered unanimous support to unfund a special assistant position in the borough mayor’s office, and called for a meeting to hash out sensitive divisions amongst the medical community.
At the latter meeting, Knopp was the only assembly member who asked pointed questions of both doctors and hospital administrators.
“When it doesn’t seem quite right, you’ve got to ask why,” Knopp explained.
Other assembly members didn’t seem to share his concerns on that issue, but that’s OK, he said.
“We got all the interested parties, board members, medical community, employees and the borough, hospital administration together and I addressed my concerns, I made them all aware of it and I was doing my due diligence,” he said. “At the end of the day, if (the rest of the assembly doesn’t) share my concerns, I’m OK. I did my due diligence.”
That phrase — due diligence — has become his modus operandi after hearing it from a borough staffer, he said. Sometimes that means he disagreed with the body he leads or he wanted more discussion, which could appear as plain stubbornness, he admits.
“I’m not a go along to get along type of guy,” he said.
Assembly member Linda Murphy said she has been upfront with Knopp when she thought he was overreaching and made decisions “arbitrarily.” But Murphy said assembly members will always have disagreements about how others should fulfill their duties.
“If I were in his position, I’m sure I would do things other assembly members, thought were heavy-handed or going beyond what I should do,” she said. “It is all in perception.”
Knopp decided to run because he thought he could do a better job than the person running at the time. He said he was fortunate to realize early on that his world of black and white was not the world of politics — the gray areas expanded.
“In my life I was always a this-is-the-way-it-is type of guy, right or wrong,” he said. “When I got on the assembly, I was hearing two sides to every argument and things I had never heard before, never crossed my mind. So, it’s been a real eye-opener of learning to listen and consider.”
Sometimes public testimony is more like public venting, Knopp said. But being assembly president isn’t for the thin-skinned and much of what the public is venting about has merit, he said.
An example is the anadromous streams ordinance, which the assembly has been mulling for more than a year. Knopp agrees that habitat protection is important, but he said he feels the ordinance was bad legislation; he’d rather achieve that end through tax incentives, not regulations, he said.
But he won’t bad-mouth the decision — “once it’s done you will live with it like everyone else,” he said.
“How I cope with that is that you have to respect the final decision that was made because you are one body,” he said. “You are one vote out of the nine.”
Knopp’s vote has also been shaped by another — his wife Helen. Knopp said she has never missed a borough assembly meeting, and is sometimes the only resident in the assembly chambers save for local media during late meetings.
“She has been my backbone for keeping me looking good,” he said with a smile.
Often Helen will read Knopp’s packet work before him and bring up points and ask questions Knopp said he wouldn’t otherwise find.
“She’ll come up with a whole different interpretation and I’ve thought, ‘I could see how you’d get that maybe,’ but I’d never get that out of there,” he said.
Assembly member Bill Smith said he was impressed with the depth of Knopp’s research into borough issues and his follow through. Even though the two didn’t always agree, Smith said he appreciated that Knopp was open to looking at things from another perspective and working on them.
“People often do, and he certainly did, evolve in his views and perspective in his time on the assembly,” Smith said. “I think he became a little more moderate, you might say, while still holding onto his base values.
“I think that is complimentary to his ability to look at the community’s needs and realities of it and adjust for that rather than trying to bend everything into a certain ideology.”
Despite wishing he had worked harder in the position than he did — one can only do so much, he contends — Knopp said he wished more residents would get involved in the political process.
“And, I would say, a little less cynical about the public process in the local government because it is just a bunch of local people making decisions based on the best information they are getting,” he said.
For the future, Knopp said he’ll take time to shore up work projects and get back on track with personal matters.
“First on my list is to lose 40 pounds,” he said with a laugh.
Knopp isn’t sure about a future political career. During his campaign this summer for a seat in the State House he swore if he didn’t win he would retire from public service, he said. But after losing a close election to State Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Kenai, Knopp received much encouragement not to write off a future ballot appearance.
“In reality pretty humbling all the phone calls and messages we got of people saying, ‘Don’t give up, consider it in two years,’” he said. “So I said to the wife that maybe we’ll keep the signs and in two years we will see where we are at.”
As for the direction of the assembly, Knopp encouraged the members to keep on a path of policy independence, don’t “rubber stamp” any issue and, of course, exercise due diligence.
“I’d like the assembly members to always remember that they are the policy makers, they are the drivers,” he said. “I don’t want them to take a back seat and be led around.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.