During his first year on the job, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has sought to walk a middle road as the borough’s chief administrator by relying on communications and negotiations, playing politics close to the chest and promoting his desire to be seen as a brainstormer and collector of expert opinions.
Navarre has navigated several borough controversies and mitigated disasters including damaging wind storms, record snowfalls, one of the poorest returns of king salmon in recent memory and major flooding of Seward, the Kenai River and other portions of the Peninsula.
The mayor’s admirers say they have few complaints about his experience and style — noticeably devoid of rhetoric — and praise his day-to-day administration of the borough while making few waves politically.
Critics take issue Navarre’s shortcomings in the policy-driving aspects of the position, not keeping with election promises to tackle looming health care issues, not wholly reflecting the community’s political views and being too willing to please.
Supporters and critics agree several looming decisions could define his current term, including the hotly-debated anadromous streams and lakes habitat protection ordinance, which has yet to be implemented on the east side of the borough.
Navarre, in a recent interview with the Clarion, said his decision making process hasn’t changed since he served as borough mayor in the late 1990s. But, the former state legislator said he has matured from the last time his name was on the mayor’s door and the borough is better for it.
“I want to have a consensus-building process where we work together to help resolve problems as they arise, not make a unilateral decision because nobody can have all the information,” he said.
Navarre said he has added to his political acumen in two ways — the ability to recognize when he needs to be more aggressive with issues and when to delegate authority. The latter can be seen in his decision to have chief of staff Paul Ostrander facilitate the task force he created to examine and recommend changes to the anadromous streams ordinance.
More to prove?
Fred Sturman, the Soldotna man who lost last year’s mayoral runoff election to Navarre by just a few hundred votes, said he and Navarre still differ on many issues including borough spending and the anadromous streams ordinance, which he said he would have vetoed by now.
“He’s probably done as good of a job as he could have,” he said. “But his philosophy is different than mine.”
Sharon Waisanen, a local political activist who follows borough politics, said she had no complaints about Navarre, going so far as to call his work “fabulous.”
Waisanen said she feels Navarre is equally proactive and cautious, both of which are good traits for someone in his position.
“The whole borough mayor job and the whole borough, that’s a big machine,” she said. “I think it’s important to realize he does try to find consensus and he does work at trying to find what the needs of the people are.”
Mike McBride, who helped run Sturman’s campaign, said Navarre is clearly a good administrator and a “capable individual,” but there is “always the rest of the story.”
Specifically, McBride said he’d like for Navarre to be more open to others’ ideas, especially when it comes to big picture items other than day-to-day managing of the borough.
“Maybe he will, but I’m not sure,” he said when asked if the mayor will be effective in the larger scope of the job. “I haven’t seen where he has been.”
McBride said he thinks Navarre’s work on the anadromous streams ordinance is more the administration attempting to talk the resistance into thinking the ordinance is a good idea and to “cast dispersion” rather than listening to the voice of the people.
In short, McBride said the mayor still has a lot to prove.
Duane Bannock, host of KSRM Radio’s Sound Off program and a member of the previous mayor’s administration, said he is a “big fan” of Navarre, but has also given him “plenty of free advice.”
“There’s a few insignificant policy things that he and I don’t necessarily agree with, but that doesn’t mean anything just because we don’t agree,” he said. “I’m a fan of his style, I like the fact that he answers questions directly and there hasn’t been a time when I have gone to him with either a question or a comment and not received and answer and I appreciate that.”
Kasilof’s George Pierce, who regularly attends borough assembly meetings and comments on the assembly’s actions, agreed with Bannock in that aspect — the mayor is polite and responds whether or not he agrees.
But Pierce said he’d like to see more action on budget issues, and less “catering to non-profits” from Navarre.
“In his campaign he talked about how he was going to do more listening to the will of the people and then he got in and it seems like he is catering to the special interest groups again,” he said.
Again, Pierce came back to the anadromous streams ordinance calling the task force Navarre created “lopsided.”
“It is kind of like, we’ll try to help you out, but we are going to keep it on our side,” he said.
Dale Bagley, who served as borough mayor from 1999 to 2005 and was one of five mayoral candidates on last year’s ballot, said that ordinance was also his biggest concern in Navarre’s policy playbook.
“I wish that Mayor Navarre would show some leadership on that and try to get rid of it even if the votes aren’t there on the assembly,” he said. “I don’t think he really has a problem with it so he isn’t going to go down that direction.”
Where others praised the mayor on his administration, Bagley said he felt Navarre has “waffled” on both policy and managing. That, in part, comes from the mayor’s desire to not make political enemies, Bagley said.
“It’s who he is,” he said. “I was on the assembly when he was mayor in the 1990s and that’s why I ended up running for borough mayor was because I was frustrated with those issues.”
For all of the pitfalls Navarre might have avoided so far, several decisions loom that will define his tenure including the streams ordinance, borough union labor negotiations and how the borough copes with state-level decisions. That’s not to mention whatever challenges the next year holds.
But whether the mayor has been or will be successful remains in the eyes of the voters — a group that narrowly elected him over Sturman. Those two candidates, Bannock said, differed greatly on many issues of borough importance by his estimation and the closeness of last year’s runoff race evidenced the community’s sharp political divide, he added.
Perhaps Navarre’s greatest challenge in the long run comes in walking the middle road of that divide.
“I think in the long run it will show that he has,” Bannock said when asked if the mayor has yet to bridge that gap successfully. “I don’t know that there has been any, I like to use the phrase ‘groundbreaking legislation’ … from the Navarre administration that the assembly has approved, but I expect that there will be.”
Pierce disagreed — adding that while the mayor is politically savvy and if the election were tomorrow that he’d vote for Navarre despite originally voting for Sturman — he still doesn’t think the mayor can please all.
“He tries to pacify everybody and it just ain’t going to work,” he said. “You can’t make everybody happy, but he makes an attempt to try. I think he would, in my opinion, have been a better mayor than Fred (Sturman).”
'Do the right thing'
Navarre agreed he needed to do a better job on tackling his biggest passion and one of the main reasons he felt compelled to run for office again — health care. The assembly previously allocated funding for his idea to deeply examine health care on the Peninsula.
But Navarre hasn’t yet touched the $200,000 the assembly allocated for his plans — he said he didn’t want to throw money at examining a changing landscape while he solidifies his administration.
“I’ll say that it is going to get better,” he said when asked about his balancing of policy and day-to-day administration.
Although some might poke at his perceived desires to please everyone, Navarre defended that trait.
“Respectful dialogue I think is always the best,” he said.
Navarre said he is also standing by something he said in his campaign — that as the mayor he would try to do the “right thing” rather than sway with the way the political wind blows. That includes the anadromous streams ordinance, he said.
However, that issue has received much of his attention and he said he wants to strike a balance between habitat protection and property rights. He said he is interested in considering ways to accomplish the goal of habitat protection without “the broad brush that seems to have some people concerned.”
In this case, Navarre said the decision he and the assembly make on the issue is important, but equally so is the process used to arrive at it, thus the creation of the task force.
“There will be some people who never like what the end result is or what the recommendations are and they just want to take it away and start over; we are just not to that point to say that’s the best way to go about it,” he said.
So how does Navarre keep his composure when faced with so much criticism on that ordinance?
“I think I do it by trying to recognize that we — meaning Paul (Ostrander) and I and this administration — we don’t have any hidden agenda,” he said.
Looking forward, Navarre said he would like to dip his toes more into state affairs that affect the Peninsula by serving in a lobbying capacity, which would draw on his numerous connections at the state level.
As far as how he wants voters to hear him — that is his political voice — he said he’d prefer one focusing on being a good administrator first without rhetoric and one continually informed by the borough’s good and bad news: “the unvarnished opinion.”
But, voters can expect to see a mayor who is more deliberate in how he does what he does, he said.
“I want to do the right thing in every instance — it doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes, I do and everybody does,” he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.