Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct the year Hal Smalley termed out of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, and also the spelling of candidate Bob McIntosh's name.
The race leading up to Kenai’s October 4 municipal election will be an unusual one. Kenai city clerk Sandra Modigh said that not only did this year’s election have the most candidates of any she’d seen in her six years at the city — with five people running for two open council seats, and two running for mayor — but it will be the first in her experience without incumbents on the ballot.
However the race goes, three of the seven members (including the mayor) of the city council will change, as well as other faces of Kenai politics. City Manager Rick Koch will leave his job this December, having resigned to make an unsucessful bid for the Alaska House of Representatives.
Kenai’s present mayor Pat Porter has held the office since 2004. This year she’s stepping down to leave Kenai for Texas to be near her family. Kenai’s current vice-mayor Brian Gabriel and former council member Hal Smalley will be competing to fill her office.
Smalley held a Kenai City Council seat for 11 years during his career as an English teacher at Kenai Central High School, and after his retirement from teaching went on to other offices: he sat in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 to 2001 and on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly from 2008 until being termed out in 2014. He said his leadership would give Kenai a greater connection to larger political entities.
“I think my legislative experience in all three areas — the Council, the Borough Assembly, and the Legislature — will be a positive impact on the city,” Smalley said. “I think the council needs to be a little bit more involved in that process than it has been in the last few years. It used to be quite involved in what was going on in Juneau and in Washington, D.C. I think that’s primarily been rendered to city administration, and I think both council and the administration needs to be working in tandem on those aspects.”
Gabriel, the Alaska Department of Transportation’s Soldotna station foreman, commercial fisherman, and one of Smalley’s former English students at Kenai Central High School, has served six years on the Kenai Council, the past two as vice mayor. He said maintaining the city budget in a future of decreased state spending and economic downturn is one of his concerns.
“The city’s in pretty good financial shape right now, but that’s one of the things we need to keep our thumbs on,” Gabriel said. “As people lose their incomes or have reduced income, they have less disposable money, and it’s not a good time to look at raising taxes for sales of property. So maintaining a budget with core services we have now is important.”
He said he’d do so by looking for new sources of city revenue.
“On a local level, one of the things (that can expand revenue) is tourism,” Gabriel said. “We have a huge influx of people from the dipnet fishery, so we can do things to capture a few more of those dollars — not necessarily related to the dipnet fishery, because people have a hard time paying for things they have a right to, such as our fishery resource — but capturing those dollars outside of the dipnet fishery... if there were events they could attend they might be willing to spend a few more of those dollars.”
One of Gabriel’s projects in his past year on council has been funding an outdoor stage that could host such events. He chaired a committee to plan the stage, choosing the vacant lot near the senior center, known as Millenium Square, for the location.
The two mayor candidates will have a public debate at noon on August 24 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
Having entered the mayoral race, Gabriel — one of the two city council members up for re-election this year — can’t run to retain his council spot. The other council member up for re-election, Terry Bookey, didn’t file to run for his seat this year, leaving the council race without incumbent candidates.
Under Kenai’s election system, voters will choose two candidates and the two highest vote-getters will take the seats. Their five options include two current Kenai Planning and Zoning members, two city political activists, and a local entrepreneur.
Former retail business-owner and oil field manager James Glendening presently sits on the Kenai city and Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning and Zoning Commissions. This will be his second council race, after an unsuccessful bid last year against incumbent Bob Molloy and current council member Mike Boyle.
“I think I can provide perspective for good budget management, and I want to make sure that senior citizens, youth, and veteran’s services and processes are protected,” Glendening said of his goals if elected.
He named small business promotion as another goal.
“Having been a former small business owner, I want to make sure we have a small business-friendly environment,” Glendening said. “...What we can do is make sure that the welcome mat is thrown out. We can do this by partnering with the Chamber of Commerce.”
When asked if he thought Kenai’s city government and administration should do anything differently, Glendenning said no.
“I think we have an inviting community,” Glendening said. “You drive in and you see the open spaces, the lawns are mowed and there are flowers in appropriate places. The signs are well-maintained. I think there is a friendly reception for small businesses in this town.”
The other Kenai Planning and Zoning commissioner running for a council seat is Glenese Pettey, a financial advisor at the Kenai office of investing consultant company Edward Jones. As of Wednesday evening, Pettey was out of town and couldn’t be reached for an interview.
Christine Hutchison is currently on Kenai’s Harbor Commission but hasn’t held elected office before. She said a sales job she once held in Anchorage might be the experience that has best prepared her for a council seat.
“I think I can sell people on getting involved in local government,” Hutchison said.
Her sales efforts so far have included a twice-monthly meeting she hosts for public discussion of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly agenda. She said attempts to host similar meetings for the Kenai and Soldotna city councils haven’t been successful. Among the issues Hutchison named as important but poorly understood by the public were Kenai’s small business environment and its policies on leasing airport land to small businesses. Her view of Kenai’s small business environment differed from Glendenning’s.
“I’m surprised at how poorly the city deals with small businesses,” Hutchison said. “The coffee stands are leaving for Soldotna. I want to understand what’s behind all of this.”
Regarding Kenai’s practice of leasing city-owned land for development by business owners rather than selling it to them, Hutchison said she’d work on creating a firm, binding policy for land sales.
Candidate Jason Floyd, owner of Ammo Can Coffee shop, held a similar perspective on conditions for small Kenai businesses. Floyd said the difficulty of finding purchasable land in Kenai had driven him to locate his coffee shop in Soldotna, despite the greater competition.
“When you look at Kenai and Soldotna and compare the business environment of the two places, it’s like looking at night and day,” Floyd said. He pointed to Soldotna’s incentivizing tax exemptions and the relative ease with which business owners can access events like farmer’s markets and festivals, as well as Kenai’s issue with leased land.
“I think with a lot of businesses that are currently located on airport property, there isn’t a lot of incentive for new investment on those properties,” Floyd said. “As we look around there’s a lot of derelict or vacant properties that are quite old and there’s not a lot of new investment in them. ... For the city to not offer really motivated business owners the opportunity to buy those properties and then derive their tax revenues off of sales rather than saying ‘we’re going to look at the next 50 years of rent on this property in order to sustain the airport,’ it’s myopic and backwards.”
A graduate of Nikiski High School, Floyd has previously been an Alaska Office of Child Protective Services social worker in Kenai and Aniak. In addition to his coffee business he said he’s also working as a consultant for the national 4-H organization about an international exchange program. He said addiction and law enforcement are social issues he’s concerned about, especially following Alaska’s legalization of marijuana.
Candidate Bob McIntosh said he became informally active in Kenai city politics after his retirement. Originally from Maine, McIntosh came to Alaska as an Air Force serviceman at Elmendorf Air Force Base in the 1970s and lived in Anchorage after his discharge. He moved to Kenai to work as a computer technician, setting up a barcode system at a local hardware store. After the store went out of business in 2005, he drove a school bus, a cab, and a van for the nonprofit Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS).
In late 2014, McIntosh applied for a vacant seat on the library commission, but wasn’t appointed by Porter. Soon after, the council voted to suspend the library commission for lack of membership. McIntosh said that experience was his first foray into Kenai politics. Since then, he’s spoken frequently at Kenai city meetings and created the local political website Kenai Town Crier.
“I think I was just supposed to go away,” McIntosh said. “But I didn’t. I spent two years learning about the city, doing some stuff. And it seemed there was there no incumbent running, so if I was going to run, this would be the opportunity.”
McIntosh said he wants “to try to open up government access to more people, so that they can have a more effective input on the city.”
“For one thing, I advocate a term-limit for city council and mayor,” he said. He also described creating a citizen’s council to advise the city council.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.