Fifteen-year Kenai Mayor John Williams and the man seeking to put him into retirement, Kenai City Council member Duane Bannock, debated at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday.
While political foes until the Oct. 2 municipal election, the pair held each other's hands, prayed and sang along with everyone else in attendance, in mourning and remembrance for the thousands killed in Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
The luncheon was filled with patriotism and emotion. The color guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented the United States and Alaska flags and led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was followed by a group prayer written by Pastor John Walters of the United Methodist Church of the New Covenant Church. The luncheon closed with a group rendition of God Bless America, led by Kenai Central High School freshman Elena Bird.
Moderator Merrill Sikorski said those gathered were there to participate in the very cause of the attacks -- "government of the people, by the people."
"Perhaps we'll take today's forum a little less for granted because of yesterday," he said.
Sikorski's questions for the two candidates were solicited in advance from citizens by chamber director Aud Walaszek and her staff.
Below is a summary of the questions and the answers, presented in the order they were given.
Sikorski's first question was "what do you think the city of Kenai should be doing to provide some sort of outdoor teen area, and how can the city be proactive for our teens?"
Williams: The mayor said that a lot of money has been spent by the city on its Parks and Recreation Department over the years and that the Recreation Center is one of the most used facilities in the city.
"We have added a first class skateboard park next door to the teen center this Saturday," Williams said. "The city has invested some $27,000 on it."
He said the Multi-purpose Facility is an ongoing project that provides ice skating in the winter and will provide a covered area for summer activities as well. He also pointed out the "great number" of parks the city has created, including property the city set aside last week for a potential new one in a residential area.
"I think we're doing quite a job toward furnishing recreational facilities for the children," Williams said.
Bannock: The eight-year council incumbent said he is supportive of the new skateboard park because so many people have complained about skateboarders on the sidewalks and in parking lots.
"My kids watch the X-Games just like your kids probably do, and skateboarding and Rollerblading and BMX biking is not going to go away," Bannock said. "We have literally developed, from ground zero, a place where these kids are going to go. Hopefully they're going to be safe, and most importantly they're going to have fun."
He also agreed with Williams that the Multi-purpose Facility was a great project for the city.
Sikorski asked about convention centers, whether it is feasible to join with the city of Soldotna on one and how dedicated the candidates feel about seeing a center in Kenai.
Bannock: "A conference center is probably an asset that is missing here. We're filled to capacity in this room today," he said.
He said the city is not in a position to build a conference center itself, but there is a private plan afoot to create one in a currently vacant building in town.
"I fully support that plan," he said. "I fully support that plan for two reasons. Number one, it is sorely needed, and number two, the plan as presented right now will be done solely from the private sector side."
He said he does not know if there is a way to partner with the city of Soldotna on a joint convention center, as Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker had previously suggested.
"I don't know that it's prudent to use city funds to develop an asset outside the city limits of Kenai. I don't know if its a bad idea, and I don't know if it's even something we can do," he said.
Williams: He said that 15 years ago, the citizens voted down a convention center. He said that even if it was voted up, it probably couldn't have been built at the time, due to land issues.
"It has taken 15 years, and I have been mayor for 15 years, to get ready the property to build that facility on," he said.
The property he referred to is what has become known as Millennium Square, near the bluff between the Kenai Senior Citizens Center and Bridge Access Road. He said the question is not should the city involve itself in building a convention center, but how.
"I have personally been in contact with five organizations that include some major hotel developers and builders," he said. "It will have to be a partnership.
"Should it be built between the two communities? Probably not. I don't support the idea of one community's citizens paying for another community's capital projects. I don't think that will work," he added.
He also said he does not think there would be room for two convention or event centers in the central peninsula.
Sikorski diverged from the prepared questions and asked the candidates what their most embarrassing moment was as a public servant.
Williams: He said his came on a night he was being honored with an award.
"One came when I was name elected official of the year by the Alaska Municipal League at their annual banquet. I had stepped out of the room, didn't even know I was nominated, didn't know I had received the award and didn't have an opportunity to get up and say thank you," he said. "That was kind of embarrassing."
Bannock: He said his came after Williams had given him some campaign advice in 1988, when he first ran for council. He said the mayor had told him to knock on doors and start with the homes of people he knew and build up his confidence that way.
"On the very first door that I knocked on, I went to my friends and started in a particular part of town," he said. "And I knocked on that door and no one but Mrs. (Susan) Smalley answered the door.
"The only thing that was odd about Mrs. Smalley answering the door is that her husband, Mr. (Hal) Smalley, was also running for that same council seat.
"Unbeknownst to me, the Smalleys had moved into that neighborhood. I tell you, I had no idea what I stammered out."
Sikorski took another opportunity to throw a curve ball to the candidates, asking them to ask audience members what issues are important to them.
Bannock first asked how many people in the audience were involved in some way with nonprofit groups, and nearly all hands went up. He then asked what they thought the city of Kenai's involvement with nonprofits should be.
The couple of answers he got said the city should be an example to other communities and be a bridge toward building a better quality of life for the city's residents.
Williams stayed on the same theme, asking how the audience felt about contributing taxpayers' dollars to nonprofits.
Responses were mixed, though all said some sort of caution should be taken when giving money.
Sikorski went back to his prepared questions, and asked what the candidates would do to protect residents from business eyesores.
Bannock, who served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission before being elected to the city council, and who has been the council's liaison to the commission for several years, said the city's new sign code goes a long way toward addressing that.
He said the commission's site plan reviews also require businesses to screen their Dumpsters to prevent eyesores and garbage from blowing around.
"On the flip side of that, am I going to advocate having a beautification police officer that goes around? Respectfully, I am not," he said.
Williams said the city has on occasion tried to alleviate eyesores in the community, not just with businesses, but private homes. The city has even gone so far as to take some of them to court.
"The problem we faced, is that we did not have a strong enough code in order to do that kind of enforcement," he said. "Recently we rewrote our code because we did lose a case in court.
"We took a gentleman into court, tried to get him to clean up his yard, and he even acted as his own attorney and we lost.
"There's a very, very fine line between a citizen's right to gather things and the citizen's observation what the things are, garbage or collector's items."
Sikorski asked a question about implementing safety ordinances for gravel pits. All the gravel pits in the city are near Beaver Loop Road and are privately owned.
Williams said they are all in a rural-residential zoning district, where almost any activity is allowed, but that he thought the city does a good job in screening applicants for conditional-use permits in those areas.
Bannock suggested more enforcement of the tree buffers around their collective perimeters, but relaxing those laws inside the areas between gravel pits.
The next question was whether the proposed coastal trail and sea wall project would be good for the city of Kenai.
Bannock: "The coastal trail project would be great for Kenai," Bannock said. "There's not going to be very many people who will disagree with that.
"If I have a concern with this, my concern is securing the funds. My concern is how are we going to ensure that it is entirely paid for," he added. "With a cost of at least $10 million, you and I are not in a position to fund this by ourselves."
He said once it is built, it will solve the bank stabilization issue and be yet another recreational opportunity in the city.
Williams: "There are people in this room who have been associated with this project going back 20 years, dating to my days on the Harbor Commission," Williams said.
He pointed out that he obtained the first funding for a study of the erosion at that time.
"I am very, very pleased to say we are closer today than we have ever been before," he said.
But he warned that there have been some adverse comments made to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers against the sea wall.
"There are people who do not want development, even if it means letting the whole bluff rip the whole town out. They don't want it," he said.
Sikorski then asked the candidates' personal opinions on the proposed private prison.
Williams: He said there is no short answer, but that he does not believe the Kenai Peninsula needs to base its future economy on prisons.
"I am philosophically opposed to private prisons. It's a major step in a direction that I'm not totally pleased with," he said. "I have asked and asked for questions to be answered. I have asked for a socioeconomic impact statement to be done. It has not been done."
He said there are many other ways to do economic development that do not include prisons.
"I do not want the Kenai area and the peninsula to become the prison capital of Alaska," he said.
Bannock: He said the best thing is that the prison question is going to be decided by "the will of the people," in October's municipal election.
"From an economic standpoint, I see zero downside to it," he said. "It's going to create a tremendous amount of short-term construction jobs. It's going to create a tremendous amount of long-term prison jobs."
He said he's supported a prison for six or eight years, when the state tried to build a halfway house in Kenai.
"From my upstairs, I can see the top of Building 10 (at Wildwood prison)," he said. "I have no issues at all living just that far away from Wildwood prison."
The pair then had a chance to make closing remarks.
Bannock: "You know my positions," he said. "I've talked through the campaign of taking us to the next level. What is that next level? We have done a great, great job of putting the city of Kenai as one of the greatest places in the world to live.
"I want to add just this much more to it," he added, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "My emphasis is going to be on the small private and retail development. That's where my focus is going to be, that's where my focus has always been."
Williams: "I've been mayor for 15 years and on commissions and committees before that, and during that 15 years, millions upon millions upon millions of dollars in capital projects have been built in this community, all with other people's money," he said. "I have been very, very successful in going and getting funding from other places.
"Those projects have created jobs, they've created economy, they've made this community what it is today."
He said there are $30 million more in projects waiting in the wings that he has planned.
"It's those kind of positive things are what makes this community run," he said. "I ask you to continue to look upon that experience as what's necessary for the city of Kenai. Vote the record, vote for experience."
This week, political forums continue at the Kenai chamber luncheon on Wednesday, when candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board will debate. It will be held at Old Town Village Restaurant at noon. The public is invited to attend.
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