Peninsula residents pleasantly perform the dirty jobs that someone has to do

Posted: Sunday, September 01, 2002

Who would want to burn the midnight oil time and time again wading through voluminous state statutes and borough codes to ensure that an action proposed by a borough assembly member or the borough mayor doesn't conflict as the many layers of government interact?

Isn't it only someone bent on self-inflicted pain who would willingly subject him- or herself to hundreds of phone calls after every significant rainfall or major snowstorm on the peninsula when residents can't travel the borough roads to or from work or school?

And what could be less pleasant, on a warm, sunny, gorgeous summer day on the Kenai Peninsula, than standing above a massive garbage collection van, especially after discovering that person or persons unknown have illegally added rotting, unwrapped fish carcasses to their timely deposit at the solid-waste transfer facility?

Colette Thompson, Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney, Gary Davis, road service area director for the borough, and Chris Thorne, weekend attendant at the solid waste disposal facility in Sterling, do these deeds regularly.

Reasons are ample for not wanting any of the three jobs. Yet these three people approach their varied jobs with an apparent dedication to duty, a willingness to serve their community and a joyful spirit evidenced by the smiles each generously sends out to those seeking their service.

It must be a labor of love.

Another man's treasure

Thorne started her job as an attendant at the Sterling solid waste transfer station in June, just

in time for the busiest part of the year -- just in time for the stinky part -- as she describes the season when fishers dispose fish carcasses at the site.

"The job offers a good benefit package, you don't have any co-workers -- you're by yourself -- and you get to be outdoors," Thorne said.

With a wry smile, the attendant also said her job gives her "a unique perspective on my community."

"It's just amazing to see how much stuff we collect. And, I find it very interesting how much stuff we throw away that other people value."

She tells of one elderly lady who drives a very expensive car, and yet takes something home from the transfer station every day.

She found it surprising when people cleaning out the home of an elderly man who had died, brought pickup truck load after load of old magazines that the man had saved for more than 70 years.

"The magazines were very neatly stacked in boxes and dated back into the '30s," she said.

Out of curiosity, she asked how anyone could move around in the man's house, with all those boxes of magazines.

The boxes were apparently stacked as neatly as the magazines within each box, and clear pathways were allowed throughout the man's home.

Tempting as it might be to some, Thorne said she does not tell any of the secrets she learns about people.

"In fact, I don't even know their names. I just know their cars."

One who enjoys people watching, she has also observed how habitual people can be. One man, for instance, comes by with one single bag of trash every day.

But, perhaps, the most enjoyable sidelight of the job is that she gets to meet children, "even before they start at our school."

Thorne, who lives in Sterling with her husband, Paul Marckesano, and their 7-year-old daughter, Katie, also teaches as a substitute at Sterling Elementary School and volunteers there as a teacher's aide.

Originally from Colorado, she and her husband moved to Alaska in 1995 from Las Vegas after Katie was born.

"I didn't want to raise our daughter in Las Vegas, so we came up here," she said. "My husband wanted to come to work in the fishing industry. He runs the Snug Harbor Seafoods market on K-Beach Road.

"At first, I just stayed home with Katie, until she started school."

That's when Thorne began helping out as a volunteer at Sterling Elementary, eventually becoming a Title 1 substitute teacher. She currently is enrolled at Kenai Peninsula College, where she hopes one day to complete a degree in education.

At the solid waste transfer facility, Thorne also goes the extra mile to help people, lending a hand with a heavy load or quickly picking up a broom or shovel to clean spilled yard waste or home-construction scraps accidentally dropped as residents off-load their trash.

"It's my job to be there, and it's my nature to help," she said.

She comments on how impressed out-of-state visitors are that the service provided by the facility is free to the public.

"In many areas, they have to pay a lot of money to dump a freezer or refrigerator or things like that. Visitors are amazed that the service is free.

"It makes it nice. Otherwise you'd have mattresses up and down the side roads and bears or ravens in the garbage."

Speaking of bears, she hasn't seen any hanging around the facility this summer, but has heard of one a few years back.

"We did have a moose wander in a couple weeks ago, and there being only one way in or out, it eventually found its way back out," she said.

She has no complaints about her job.

"I like it. I'd really like to keep it. I don't know how well I'll like it at 50 below, but I lived through the fish season -- that's what they told me I needed to do."

A sometimes bumpy ride

Davis is another public servant who likes his job.

"This area has been my home since 1961," he said.

The 1963 Kenai Central High School graduate, who went on to complete a bachelor's degree in education from Alaska Methodist University in 1972, lives with his wife, Susan, in Sterling. They have a son, Brian, 33, and two daughters, Karen, 31, and Carol, 27.

 

Photo by Phil Hermanek

Gary Davis points to one of afive road service units on a large wall map always at the ready in his office on Poppy Lane.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

No stranger to public service, he was a member of the Soldotna City Council for six years, Soldotna mayor from 1990 to 1992 and an Alaska state representative from 1992 to 2000.

Prior to his political career, he worked in construction, starting as an equipment operator and eventually owning an excavating company.

He finds his political background, his administrative experience and his construction background valuable in his job as the top administrator over borough roads.

"My political background is especially helpful in handling complaints and dealing with the public," he said.

In fact, it is Davis' phone that rings when roads haven't been plowed of snow or heavy rains riddle the many peninsula dirt roads with potholes.

"We don't have software in place that allows us to actually count the number of calls we receive, and many of the calls come in to the borough planning department, but during a heavy rain or on a big snow day, we can get as many as a hundred calls in a day," he said.

When a call does come in, Davis, who has been in his position for two years, quickly can go to the computer in his office and see exactly when a particular road was last graded or when it is due to be graded again.

The road service department, which includes Davis, three road inspectors, one roads technician and a secretary, contracts out all road work needing to be done in the borough.

It's the job of the service area director to oversee the bidding and the contractor selection, give direction to the staff and work with the borough mayor, the assembly and the state Legislature to make sure the roadway needs are met.

"The assembly puts together a legislative priority book each year, and they'll call me and ask for my input," Davis said.

"I go to Juneau at least once a year and review the proposals before the Legislature. I indicate our needs to the Legislature and lobby, usually through the municipal league, to get what we need."

One such proposal in the works is the resurfacing of Edgington Road in Sterling. He said Edgington currently "is the worst road in the borough."

"The state approved $325,000 for the project. Now the borough assembly is completing work on the state grant, and cost estimates for the work will start coming in from engineers.

"From the estimates, we'll determine what can be done with that amount of money. Can we bring the road up to paving grade? Can we pave the road? We'll set public meetings with property owners along Edgington and discuss what the options are."

Once all the information is gathered, Davis will determine what can and should be done with the money that's been approved by the state.

His department also recently has been assigned responsibility for right of ways, a duty formerly held by the planning department.

"It seemed to be a natural for us," he said. "They're mostly road-related issues that come up involving right of ways."

The work of the road service area director is no small task considering that the geographical area includes five road units in and around Nikiski in the north, a central region from Skilak Lake to Cook Inlet and down to Clam Gulch, an eastern region from Cooper Landing to Seward, which also includes Hope, and a southern region from Clam Gulch to the end of East End Road out of Homer. Excluded are roads within city limits, which are maintained by the cities themselves.

Davis and the staff he administers look after all the roads and respond to the calls of residents, especially on the rainy days and big snow days. He said he looks to each call as an opportunity to serve.

Keeping law and order

When Thompson was in law school at the University of San Francisco, she pictured herself one day working in the private sector.

 

Colette Thompson pores over Kenai Peninsula ordinances in the thick book of borough codes.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

But, after working for a private rocket manufacturer in the Bay Area for a couple years, she moved to Alaska in 1985 to work with her husband, Tucker, as a commercial fisher. The fishing business was sold in the late 1980s and Thompson hung out her shingle as a general practice, civil law attorney in Soldotna, working in property law, family law and estates and trusts. Her husband also is an attorney.

In 1994, she was hired as an assistant to then-borough attorney Tom Boedeker and was appointed acting borough attorney by Mayor Don Gilman. Mayor Mike Navarre appointed her as the borough attorney in 1996, and she was reappointed to the post under the current Mayor Dale Bagley's administration.

"As borough attorney, you become very involved in the legal side of local government and have the opportunity to be involved in the local community and help," Thompson said.

"I really enjoy working with people ... addressing the citizens' needs."

With three assistants -- two hands-on litigation attorneys and one research assistant -- the job of the borough attorney is, simply put, to keep the borough legal.

"I do a lot of drafting and review of ordinances, contracts, purchasing documents, policies and procedures. I attend all the assembly meetings and answer questions and work with outside counsel to oversee lawsuits we might be involved in," she said.

With the broad boundaries of the borough, Thompson's work isn't confined to the office on Binkley Street in Soldotna.

She might one night fly off to Seldovia to participate in the formation of a special service area, such as one that authorizes fire or medical service not already provided by the borough. Or she might stay in Soldotna and assist the mayor or borough assembly with an issue they are considering.

"My knowledge comes from working with the state statutes, and I read case law, 'Law Review' and magazines with articles that come out to try to stay abreast of changes in the law," she said.

Thompson said she believes as a community grows, a strain exists "between maintaining the historical lifestyle and accommodating the desires for growth and development."

"I review the legal restrictions on the assembly's ability to regulate a new industry. I try to remain politically neutral and review the issue from purely a legal perspective."

She cited an example of an ordinance being drafted a while ago to regulate large hog farms. The proposal required permits and imposed restrictions on the operation.

"Our role was not to find the middle ground on the issue -- unless asked to by the assembly or the mayor -- but to review what was proposed and determine whether or not it was legal," she said.

The ordinance was approved.

Other topics her office has been asked to address include a recent proposal to regulate halfway houses and an attempt to build a private prison.

Some of the projects she's called upon to review can be extremely time consuming, and she said, "It's sad to see taxpayers who are frustrated and feel there's no where to turn.

"I listen to their arguments, and I respond from the borough's position. I can't always give them legal advice, but I can advise them to retain private counsel.

"As in any job, there are some things that are less pleasant," she said, recalling a case a few years ago when the borough decided to eject people who had taken up residence on old mining claims in Cooper Landing. The state, which regulates mining claims, authorized the claims but did not authorize the people to construct houses and live there.

"They were not paying for the use of the land for residential purposes, and a policy decision was made to not set a precedent," Thompson said.

"Ultimately all the families were removed. It was sad to have to do that, but we dealt with them as a group and individually and eventually, agreements were reached."

The borough's top lawyer, who lives with her husband, daughter, Tasha, 12, and son, Tanner, 10, in Nikiski, said the people she works for "do say 'thank-you.'"

"I find the people are very appreciative."



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