With five applicants to chose from and a requirement that the winner be given five votes, it took 16 ballots for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to select a new assembly member Tuesday evening.
Mark Powell, Nikiski's representative on the borough Planning Commission, will replace Jack Brown, who represented Nikiski on the assembly for 14 years. Powell has lived on the peninsula since 1983 and owns Alaska Salmon Purchasers. He is a timber buyer for Husky Lumber Company and vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Resource Management Coalition.
Powell also served on the committee that evaluated companies interested in teaming with the borough for the planning and promotion of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private prison project.
Describing himself as a "firm believer in small, unobtrusive government," Powell said, "We have responsibilities that need to be weighed. We're in a state of flux with lots of controversial issues. Government needs to maintain a distance and not get too large."
"I respect more than I did before the participation of people involved," said Powell, referring to his involvement with the Planning Commission and the Prison Selection Committee. With a nod to Brown's service, he added, "Jack Brown deserves a pat on the back. His shoes will be difficult to fill."
"I'll be new at this and will need help from you guys," Powell said of his experience in the political arena. "I've got wisdom because I've been knocked down enough to gain it, but humility enough to ask for help."
Bill Popp, of Kenai, crowned Brown, who was the good-natured brunt of assembly members' jokes throughout the day, "Honorary Sheriff of Nikiski." Brown began his new position with the borough's Division of Community and Economic Development Wednes-day morning.
Gravel for the North Road extension project weighed heavily on Tuesday's assembly agenda. Four versions of an ordinance introduced by Brown sought approval to use gravel on land owned by James Hall to help provide the required 20 percent match for a $6 million grant from the federal government for the project. The original ordinance stated that "the borough does not own land with the necessary quality and quantity of gravel in the Nikiski area."
However, it was discovered that gravel exists on borough land situated near Hall's property. Borough Mayor Dale Bagley introduced a resolution Tuesday evening requesting authorization to develop that source.
Opponents, as well as those supporting the use of Hall's gravel, expressed concerns over a number of issues, including impacts to the environment, the price of gravel, economic development and transfer of borough land to private ownership.
"The purpose of the ordinance is to provide a gravel resource for the North Road extension project," said Ron Long, who represents Seward on the assembly. "Somehow it became all things for all people. The original purpose was to provide a match so we can get the federal funds to move ahead with this project."
Popp said it had become "very clear that the administration has identified a viable alternative. We are better served with the fact that we own the resource and have the gravel at hand."
Brought to a vote, Brown cast the only tally favoring the purchase of gravel from Hall. Action on the Mayor's resolution requesting approval to develop the borough's gravel source was postponed until the assembly's June 5 meeting.
A financial feasibility study for the private prison project currently being explored by the borough was addressed during the assembly's afternoon meeting of the Committee of the Whole. The assembly has committed to completing the study prior to deciding whether to move beyond the planning and promotion phase to the actual construction and operation of the state's first private prison.
Borough Finance Director Jeff Sinz presented a draft request for proposal to the assembly for its review.
"We are interested in taking whatever consensus requests come from the assembly beyond what's in the current (request for proposals) and then developing the scope to address those issues," Sinz said.
Popp said he looks forward to the factual information the study could provide.
"I would like to get the facts straight so citizens are informed as to the facts," Popp said. "That has been my position since Day 1, and I will continue to fight for that. I have concerns in regard to making sure the facts are clear regarding schools, infrastructure, housing, social services and all general topics. The RFP should be a little broad. If you get into too much detail, you start to guide the outcome."
Grace Merkes, of Sterling, voiced concerns about who would do the study.
"My basic question is how we will establish that the people responding to the RFP are not involved with Cornell, Kenai Natives Association or VECO," she said, referring to three members on the team working with the borough on the planning and promotion of the project. "It's really important to me that we don't involve any of these groups that we're already dealing with."
"We need to get the public involved," Merkes added. "People want some kind of citizens' group involved in this. We've said it before that eventually we'll get the public involved. When are we going to do that?"
In response, Assembly President Tim Navarre said he intends to start holding public meetings in June.
"As I've stated, the assembly is still getting up to speed on the issues," Navarre said. "People have been confused that when we were working through the legislative process that gives us the authority to negotiate (with the Alaska Department of Corrections), that they assumed that we're building (the prison) tomorrow. That's not the case. Right now we're trying to get what we need in a feasibility study."
Merkes attributed the public's lack of understanding of the project to misinformation she said was being distributed by the media.
"I'm tired of having to respond to the press and questions from the public," Navarre said. "One of the reasons for having the feasibility study is to get the facts. I'm trying to answer questions out there all the time. That's the biggest job this assembly has in front of it. My intent is to set up meetings in June and July to inform the public of exactly what the facts are."
Sinz agreed to bring a revised request for proposals back to the assembly at the June 5 meeting. It would include within the scope, the assembly's requests for information on how the prison will affect the community with regard to population, schools and utilities.
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