Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member John Davis did not appear at Wednesday's candidate forum, giving his opponent, Dan Chay, an unchallenged hearing before a small crowd of voters who gathered at the borough administration building in Soldotna.
Chay is challenging Davis for the District 1 assembly seat, which Davis has held since winning a one-year term last fall. Both men are from Kenai.
Marge Hays, president of the Kenai Peninsula League of Women Voters, which sponsored the forum, said Thursday that each candidate, including Davis, had been sent two letters inviting their attendance at the forum. She said she also had left two phone messages with Davis prior to the forum.
"I got no response," she said.
Davis did not immediately return phone messages Thursday seeking an answer to why he had not appeared. An office worker at his business, KSRM Radio 92, said, however, that he was in town Wednesday.
The Davis-Chay contest is the only assembly seat that is a race. The two other seats are held by District 6 assembly member Ron Long, of Seward, and District 9 assembly member Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge. Each is running unopposed.
Martin and Long both attended Wednesday's forum and along with Chay answered several questions covering their political philosophies and visions for the future of the borough.
In his opening statement, Chay said he would bring a different mindset to assembly deliberations. He said he was a long-range thinker and committed to working.
"I'll be there, I'll be prepared and I will try to give the job the attention it deserves," he said.
Long told the audience he had gained valuable experience and built good relationships during his first term and hoped to build those things in a second.
Martin said there were many issues facing the borough, and that she had had a hand in launching some, such as the ongoing update of the borough's Comprehensive Plan, which she said she wanted to see completed.
Asked why he wanted to serve, Long said if he had a single burning issue driving him to seek another term, answering that question would be easy.
"But I don't," he said. "Nor do I see any one particular item that's wrong with the borough that I'm going to get in there and fix. Rather, I want to serve on the assembly because I think I am at a place in my life where I can bring some of the skills that I've gathered and give back to the community that has been very, very good to me."
Martin said she wants to continue to be a voice for District 9 residents. She said the borough faces the challenge of dealing with the fallout from the state's fiscal dilemma.
"I would like to be in there. I feel like I've got that experience and that I can adequately represent my district as well as the rest of the borough," she said.
Chay said the borough is facing a future unlike its past. Despite that, the borough "could do a better job of anticipating and addressing potential future scenarios," he said. Noting the ongoing rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan, Chay said he would like to introduce a method called "scenario planning," to the dialogue, and "engage the community in thinking about alternative future scenarios and how we might most constructively adapt to challenges that seem imminent."
The candidates were asked if they had any plans for promoting economic development on the Kenai Peninsula.
Martin said the borough has stressed a reliance on non-renewable resources, such as oil and gas.
"I think we need to work very hard and very diligently with both of our economic groups -- the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and the borough's Community and Economic Development Division -- in looking to encourage more of the technology-based industry," she said.
She also said more work needs to be done promoting fisheries -- she called the salmon branding project, Kenai Wild, a good start -- and on other such "value-added" industries.
Chay said the borough needs "solid information" regarding its dependence on oil and gas.
"One thing I would like to do is sort out that information and develop alternative scenarios and know what the high probability scenarios are and what the low probability scenarios are," he said. Then, he added, he would invite public participation in selecting alternatives that would have broad-based community support.
Long answered by saying what he would not do to promote development. He said he would not try to micro-manage organizations like the CEDD or the Kenai Wild salmon-branding project, where people with real expertise in their fields are doing the "real nuts and bolts" of the work.
"Probably the most valuable tool the assembly could bring to economic development is quality of life," he said. "Making the peninsula a place where people want to bring their employees, where they want to work where they want to live."
The candidates were asked to list what they saw as the most pressing issues facing the borough.
Chay noted the adverse community reaction growing to coal-bed methane leasing and development and issues surrounding planning and zoning and protection of borough watersheds.
Long said flood control is a major issue for him, especially because his district has been hit with severe flooding in recent years and has successfully petitioned for creation of the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area, a measure that will appear on the Oct. 7 municipal ballot.
Long also said borough ordinances protecting anadromous streams could be strengthened and the borough needs to do some planning regarding density management.
Martin said planning and zoning are important, but she sees the two as separate issues. The borough's subdivision codes need to be rewritten, she said.
"We also have watershed and materials site issues," she said, calling for more emphasis on planning.
Asked his top environmental priority, Long quipped, "Being out of the way when it comes downstream."
He went on to explain that that very much had to do with the flood problems facing his district.
Beyond that, how the borough would effectively deal with the spruce bark beetle infestation and its impact on lands "we all work and play on" is an important issue, he said.
"We could probably do a better job with the resources we've allocated to that," he said.
Martin said protection of borough aquifers is vital. She said she is particularly sensitive to that because of the coal-bed methane leases in her district.
"We are trying to determine what kind of impact it will have," she said.
People need to know things like how deep the aquifers are in various areas and exactly what the extent of property-owner rights are where the state has leased subsurface rights to gas developers, she said.
Chay said he has the same concerns. Protecting streams, protecting drinking water and doing flood mitigation are all things that needed to be considered as the borough invites development.
Asked what role the borough should play in protecting waters, Chay said it is important to begin recognizing what is happening in streams and rivers, which makes water testing valuable.
Long said the borough could provide a leadership role. The borough has taken some steps, such as helping to fund the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Board and in passing ordinances to protect the Kenai River, he said. But the borough is limited as a second-class municipality. It may have to go to voters before engaging in other kinds of water-protection activities, he said.
Martin said the borough has an obligation to protect the Kenai River watershed, in part because of its economic value to tourism and recreation.
One question brought up the recent flap over a private prison idea that voters soundly defeated at the polls. The questioner wanted to know if the candidates saw a way to prevent such expense and controversy in the future.
Long took issue with the thrust of the question. He said he would not prevent such questions from being debated and ultimately reaching the public in a referendum. He said the prison debate was "a healthy discussion" and that the outcome was a "well-reasoned conclusion."
"I have to agree," said Martin, adding that it had been painful, at times, but an appropriate issue to present to the voters. Given the same kind of circumstances in a future policy debate, she would go through the same process, she said.
Chay, who was not on the assembly during the prison debate, said he was "comfortable with the outcome."
Asked if there is any similarity between the prison issue and current questions arising around preparations for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, Martin said no.
The games, she said, began with apparent broad support that came from the community. She did say, however, she is not happy with how the administration had handled some Arctic Winter Games issues.
Chay said that if the assumption behind the question is that governments should not surprise the public with new initiatives, he agreed.
Long said he saw no programmatic similarity between the prison and the games. The prison was a corporate enterprise driven by a desire for profit, the games are not, he said.
He added later, however, that he isn't confident the Arctic Winter Games 2006 Host Society will be able to raise the $5 million to meet the budget assumed in the borough's bid for the games. If not, he said, the games may be different than currently imagined, or the borough may have to bow out, adding that the assembly had been "fairly diligent" about insulating the borough financially if the Host Society fails to raise sufficient funds.
Martin and Chay also said they had concerns.
As the only candidate in an actual race, Chay was asked what he saw as the differences between him and Davis. He brought a chuckle to the audience when he said the incumbent was older. He then said it was not enough simply to attack government and minimize taxes.
"Government plays an important role in the community," he said.
Another question was if the candidates would support a measure to have the borough take over the cost of co-curricular activities (sports, music, art and the like) from the school district to ease the strain on the school district budget.
Martin said she would look hard at any plan should one be presented, but she said it was really "time for the state to step up to the plate." She also said this was a year when Alaskans should face up to taxation. She prefers an income tax.
Chay said his first instinct is to engage in a public dialogue and determine if it was a question for a public vote.
Long said there are things to be considered, such as funding co-curricular activities to an adequate level could put the borough up against the limits of its tax cap. Committing such funds also should be done only with a clear view of other possible expenses ahead.
"Is that the only train wreck coming down the road?" he said.
On the experience each brings to the table, Martin noted her three years on the assembly, the six she previously served on the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education, and her years on the Kachemak Bay Advisory Planning Commission.
Chay said his assembly-valuable experience derives from his years of work as a mediator, as well as his stints as a commercial fisher and pilot, which have made him a person who values learning and looks for long-range solutions.
Long told listeners he brings a variety of skills acquired as a small-business owner and as an employee of large businesses, and from serving on civic boards, such as the Seward Port and Commerce Advisory Board. He said he is a good listener, a good researcher, would be accessible and considers himself an objective person. He also said he knows how to lose gracefully.
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