Soldotna's mayor is weak.
That's not to say the mayor is ineffectual, it's just that the Soldotna form of government has a strong city manager, who takes care of the day-to-day business of keeping the city running.
The mayor, on the other hand, doesn't even have a vote at council meetings, except for ties, and that's only happened a few times in the past decade, according to Soldotna Vice Mayor Jim Stogsdill.
Soldotna's new mayor, who could be sworn in as early as March 14, will be selected on Tuesday in a special election to replace former mayor Ken Lancaster, who resigned from the job after being elected to the state House of Representatives in November.
Five candidates, Michael Beals, David Carey, Kristin Lambert, John Smallwood and A. Kearlee Wright, have thrown their hats into the ring.
"Obviously we've got a broad spectrum with the five running," Lancaster said from his office in Juneau. "I've worked with Mr. Wright, Ms. Lambert and Mr. Carey on the council, and obviously I know the other two."
Though he and his staff cast absentee ballots last week, Lancaster did not express a preference.
"We can work with any of them, whoever the people of Soldotna elect," he said.
While the mayor presides over meetings, sets the agenda and appoints committee and commission members, the Soldotna mayor's real job is being part cheerleader, part figurehead and part glad-hander.
"The role is very clear that the mayor provides leadership in the community," said City Manager Tom Boedeker. "It's like being a councilman and then some. You represent the community and feel their pulse and then work with the council to provide them with direction."
He said the mayor is often the first sounding board citizens go to when they have comments, complaints and concerns.
"People call them to try to get answers to their problems, just as they go to a council member. But they more often go to the mayor," he said.
Boedeker said the new mayor can expect to devote a minimum of at least 10 hours a week to the job.
"The minimum is the same work load as the council, plus four more hours. That's the bottom end," he said. "It depends on what you want to do and how much time you put in attending meetings, lobbying in Juneau and other duties."
He said Lancaster spent at least 20, and sometimes more than 40 hours a week on the job.
"Ken was very dedicated. Most days he was in the offices at least an hour each day returning phone calls and meeting with people, in addition to all the meetings and different things," Boedeker said. "He also attended almost all of the Airport, Planning, Parks and Library board and commission meetings.
"But that's a political decision. They aren't required."
"It's all about personal style how much time you have to devote for the coffee money you get a month," Lancaster said of the $300 stipend the mayor is paid. "Ten hours is enough to deal with the council packet, but if you get involved in the river bank, the sports center, the airport and sit on statewide Municipal League boards, you can't do it in 10 hours."
Lancaster said the city is in fine shape financially.
"We have a stable sales tax, business growth and residential sales are pretty good," he said.
Teen and youth activities is one area Lancaster believes the new mayor should pay attention to, as well as overseeing the water and sewer expansions.
"And we need to continue to protect the river and provide adequate access for our summertime anglers, both local and tourists," he said. "That's the number one issue.
"And we need to continue to grow within our boundaries, be frugal in what we do and enhance the quality of life."
The new mayor will be given a tour of each city department and updated on the issues facing them by the staff after the election.
"I'll go through the finances with them and how the budget is structured if they're not familiar with it," Boedeker said.
The city has worked hard over the years to build up the infrastructure, such as roads and water supply, to ensure new businesses and residents in town will be adequately served, Boedeker said.
"I think this is a positive time. We've built a lot of things up to serve the community better, and now we're in a position to take advantage of that," he said.
"To a lot of people, Soldotna is not a city, it's just a spot down here," he added. "Now we can do things to get it identified as a town and a community with a lot of potential for growth."
He said giving direction to new growth is a key job for the mayor.
"You can hire staff to come up with ideas, but it's really up to the mayor, and the council under his leadership, to come up with ideas," Boedeker said. "The community are more willing to talk to the mayor, and his job is to take those comments and say, 'can we do this, and if not, why not?'"
The winner of the mayoral race must get 40 percent of the votes, but with five candidates running in Tuesday's special election, that might be difficult.
"It's more likely there will be a run-off election than there won't be," Boedeker said. "But that's not based on anything other than the law of averages with that many people running."
He said special elections like this don't often attract very many voters, increasing the likelihood of a runoff. If one is needed, it will be held within three weeks of March 14 between Tuesday's top two vote-getters.
"That's what scares me, is that so few people usually turn out for special elections," Lancaster said. "People really need to get out to vote in a special election like this."
The new mayor will serve out the rest of Lancaster's unexpired term, which lasts until October 2002.
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