It's going to be up to initiative petitioners and their ability to gather sufficient signatures to place the question of whether the Kenai Peninsula Borough should abandon 40 years of precedent and switch to a manager-run government on a future ballot.
The borough assembly voted Tuesday not to make that move themselves, deciding by the narrow margin of one vote against adding the question to the Oct. 5 municipal election ballot.
Assembly members opposing the move said the elected strong-mayor government in which the mayor is the chief executive had served the borough well since the municipality incorporated in 1964 and should not be abandoned unless that move was clearly backed by a large cross-section of the population. That could only be demonstrated through a petition drive.
"This is a giant step," said assembly member Gary Superman of Nikiski, a step he was not prepared to make at the behest of a small group of dissatisfied citizens who are pushing the ballot measure. Superman said he wanted to see "about 1,700 names" before he'd vote to have an election.
Four other assembly members agreed, most saying they would be willing to hold a special election if a petition drive proved successful, but would not vote to put the question on the ballot themselves.
While it wasn't clear that they supported a change to a manager form of government, four members of the assembly did vote in support of a ballot measure. They were Paul Fischer of Kasilof, Betty Glick of Kenai, Grace Merkes of Sterling and and Pete Sprague of Soldotna.
Opposing the measure, Ordinance 2004-21, were Superman, Dan Chay of Kenai, Ron Long of Seward, Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge and Chris Moss of Homer.
Kristine Schmidt of Kenai, who worked for the borough from 1984 to 1994, said the job of running the borough was too big for one person 10 years ago, and that growth had only made the job more difficult. There are really two jobs, she said, one managing the day-to-day operations of the borough and the other, public relations functions and economic development.
"I think you should put this on the ballot, put aside your personal feelings and let the people vote on this issue," she urged. "Let the public debate happen between now and the election."
Nikiski resident James Price said the borough needs a manager now more than ever.
"We need a professional that is going to lead us into a new era," he said, adding that the declining value of the oil patch and the cut-off of state revenue sharing would force the borough to tighten its belt.
"We are going to have to have some significant changes that are well thought out by a professional," he said. "I think a professional manager with an appropriate education and managerial experience will be better equipped to orchestrate the orderly downsizing of borough government to match the fiscal reality, than the currently politically based mayoral plan."
He noted that elected mayors don't need to have any education to run. They only need to be 18 and eligible to vote in the borough. A manager, however, would have to meet the educational and experience qualifications set by the assembly, a mechanism more likely to produce a well-run borough, he said.
Superman challenged the idea that a more qualified manager would mean less financial hardship. Manager plans already exist in other municipalities, including the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and the four major cities on the peninsula. They all face economic difficulties, he said.
Superman said it appeared to him that the effort to change the government plan was being driven by a few people upset at current Mayor Dale Bagley. But Bagley cannot run for another term.
He also said the assembly, with its good mix of liberal and conservative thinkers, tends generally to take the middle ground on most issues and, if required, would likely hire a manager with a moderate philosophy and style.
"They're not going to find some guy who is going to come in here and slash the hell out of our budget because there are a few people who are very upset and feel we have an extremely bloated government," he said. "I don't see that happening."
Supporters filed an application with the borough clerk Monday for the OK to begin a petition drive. It has yet to be approved. If a petition drive is successful, Superman and other assembly members said the borough likely would hold a special election.
A successful ballot measure would require the assembly to institute a manager-style government within 60 days. In all likelihood, that would mean reducing the annual salary paid the mayor, now about $80,000 a year, to about $400 to $500 a month plus a car allowance enjoyed by assembly members, a fact candidates would need to know long before the regular election next year. Thus, a special election would be in order, Superman said.
As for a mayor lacking the necessary qualifications to run the borough, Superman said no such qualifications attend other elected offices.
"There's no qualification to be governor. There's no qualification to be senator. There's no qualifications to be the president, other than age qualifications," he said. "So I guess that argument is a little bit empty for me."
In other business, the assembly:
Tabled Ordinance 2004-24, effectively ending a push to place a bond measure for a new fire station before voters of the Nikiski Fire Service Area. The service area board had recommended not moving forward with the measure after reviewing property tax revenue prospects.
Passed Ordinance 2004-25, authorizing the sale of some 33 parcels of borough-owned land by sealed bid. Removed from the sale list, however, were certain proposed parcels in Anchor Point, Diamond Ridge, Seward and Fritz Creek.
The 160-acre Fritz Creek-area parcel became problematic because it wasn't clear how much of the land qualified as wetlands. The borough had proposed it be classified as rural, meaning there would be no borough restrictions on development, say as a subdivision. Some local landowners concerned about their water supply wanted it classified as agricultural, which would have been more restrictive. Instead, the assembly pulled the parcel until a new survey can be made to determine the wetland's issue.
Approved Ordinance 2004-23, raising the property tax exemption level from $10,000 to $20,000. The exemption is contingent on approval by borough voters in the October election.
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