There will be no changes in the regular 7 p.m. start time for Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings, nor any alterations in the way assembly committees conduct their business in the hours preceding the evening general sessions, at least for now.
An ordinance introduced in November by assembly member Grace Merkes, of Sterling, which would have changed regular meetings to 5 p.m. and limited the duties of committees, failed by a vote of 6 to 2. Only Merkes and Kasilof assembly member Paul Fischer voted for the measure.
Merkes said she was most concerned about the way committee meetings have evolved over time, saying they've become forums in which virtually everything on the evening's agenda is discussed. Constituents have complained that all the vital decisions appear to have been made during committee meetings, because little discussion or debate takes place in the evening sessions. Many working residents have no time to attend the committee meetings, which typically run from midmorning until an hour or so before the 7 p.m. regular meeting starting time.
"People don't think we're listening," Merkes said.
The ordinance would have permitted the creation of committees only for research into special issues likely to require lengthy review by the assembly.
Weeks prior to its introduction, however, assembly President Tim Navarre, of Kenai, agreed to alter the committee process somewhat and have it focus on information gathering rather than allowing unlimited discussion. That change, however, actually served to limit public participation, he warned.
While no votes are taken in committee, the free-wheeling discussions had often given members of the public in attendance a good idea where members sat on an issue. That happens to a lesser degree now, Navarre said.
Former assembly member Debra Holle testified in support of the ordinance. She said the committee process should be used sparingly and only in special circumstances. She said the vast majority of residents cannot break away from daily activities to attend daytime committee meetings, but might come if the detailed discussions were confined to the evening sessions.
Holle said the assembly should do everything in its power to provide the public an opportunity to hear assembly proceedings
"I feel very strongly about this," she said. "It's a timing issue."
Assembly member Ron Long, of Seward, said the issue is not black and white. There is ample opportunity provided for the public to hear and address the assembly -- during the day and in the evening, as well as by personal contact, he said. If people don't take advantage of those opportunities, the assembly can't cease work.
Other assembly members pointed to the lengthy drives some must make to drive to Soldotna from outlying areas such as Homer and Seward. The committee meetings do afford residents from those areas a chance to talk to assembly members in the daylight and then drive home, secure in the knowledge they've had an assembly member's ear and seen them face-to-face, despite missing the evening session.
Milli Martin, the assembly member representing the lower peninsula's Diamond Ridge-Seldovia district, said she's asked her constituents about the proposed change.
"The response I got was that they like it the way it is," she said.
She agreed, however, that committees should concentrate on gathering information and try and hold discussion until the evening. She said the assembly should continue to refine the process and look to the need for further changes.
Merkes said she thought the committee and regular meetings should be conducted for the benefit of the public, not members of the assembly.
Fischer said it is hard to tell which meetings he should advise his constituents to attend -- the afternoon committee meetings or the evening session.
"We are supposed to be here for the people," he said, adding that if it takes two nights or even weekends to conduct the assembly's business, so be it. He also suggested the assembly should allow call-in testimony from the public during evening sessions.
Assembly member Bill Popp, who represents Kenai, noted that such call-in testimony already is allowed upon request of a member.
"I appreciate the fact we want to get folks involved," he said. "But we have to be sensible and prudent about how."
Navarre said he does not believe the assembly is ignoring the public. Several members noted that in a representative form of government, voters elect members to speak for them. However, assembly decisions, while often influenced by the public voices of meeting attendees, are not made based on a simple poll of those in the room.
In other business, the assembly:
n Approved a $75,000 appropriation to conduct a feasibility study to determine the viability of an industrial park in Nikiski;
n Postponed until the Jan. 22 meeting a measure to amend the boundaries of the Kachemak Emergency Service Area to include Miller's Landing, a section of land between Homer and Kachemak City that was inadvertently excluded from the service area map. Complicating the issue is the fact that Miller's Landing is among those areas approved for annexation to Homer;
Approved spending $280,000 to purchase a replacement bulldozer for the Solid Waste Department and another $350,000 for capital improvements to the central peninsula landfill;
Adopted an ordinance establishing a formula for representation on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission. The panel will now include one member from each of the five first-class or home-rule cities, Kenai, Soldotna, Seward, Homer and Seldovia, and eight other members from areas outside the municipalities. Those districts are called East Peninsula, Southwest Borough, Anchor Point/Ninilchik, Kasilof/Clam Gulch, Kalifornsky Beach, Ridgeway, Sterling and Northwest Borough; and
Passed a resolution in support of a city of Kenai request for a $500,000 federal grant to fully equip the Kenai Emergency Operations Training Center.
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