A major change in local political philosophy

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

Borough Assemblyman Charlie Pierce called last week for a ballot initiative to establish a borough manager form of government. That's got to be one of the more drastic 180-degree turns in this political landscape in a long time.

Until now, Pierce has been one of borough Mayor Dave Carey's staunchest supporters. He believed in Carey's promise to bring smaller, more efficient government to the Kenai Peninsula. He believed the mayor would be a strong leader. He backed the mayor when other assembly members would not.

Pierce expressed his change of heart after hearing Carey's latest budget proposal that would have tapped $7 million of the borough's fund balance, basically dipping into savings. But we suspect his dissatisfaction has been building. Mayor Carey's tenure has been riddled with head-scratching actions ever since he was elected -- a wholesale shake-up of the administration, a revolving chief of staff position, a moving target of a school budget.

All this, leading to what Pierce says now: "My level of confidence in his ability to make day-to-day decisions has changed."

Perhaps fellow assemblyman Gary Knopp is right in suggesting the borough needs a basic change in management structure. Knopp suggested the same idea last year and says he'll co-sponsor Pierce's initiative this time.

"When I introduced it initially, I thought it was a valid question for the voters," Knopp said last week. "We are so large that you need to have a good professional person managing the borough."

Even the mayor himself now thinks the idea is worth considering. He said so in April and again last week. "I think this is the correct time to do it," Carey said.

The strong-mayor vs. manager question is not new to the Peninsula. But, it certainly has gained renewed interest during the current administration. Basically, the question comes around now because of one person's performance as mayor these past two years.

We welcome the debate. But our sincere hope is that we frame the discussion in the right way.

Coincidentally, this same discussion is going on now in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Earlier this month that assembly approved putting the question before voters this fall. Right now those folks have a borough manager and will ask themselves if they want a strong mayor, just like what we have now. Supporters say a strong mayor would be more responsive to residents than a manager who focuses on keeping assembly members happy. Opponents say a manger provides for continuity in leadership and removes politics from borough management.

Granted, Mayor Carey's performance has certainly had us scratching our heads occasionally. And we understand the frustration and disappointment expressed by certain Peninsula assembly members.

But if we have this debate, let's frame it as our neighbors to the north are doing. Let's consider the question at its political philosophical level - a strong mayor, answerable to the electorate at large; or a professional manager, hired by and answerable to our elected representatives?

The question is a good one to ask and is of high importance -- too important to allow our impressions to be influenced by any one person's performance.

In short: Let's debate the strong-mayor vs. manager form of government - for the right reasons.



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