It has been a turbulent year for the Kenai City Council, but despite or perhaps because of the bumps in the road encountered, eight candidates have turned out to run for a seat on the council.
Three seats are up for grabs, with eight candidates running in all. Three candidates are running to fill the seat that was vacated by former council member Duane Bannock in February, when Gov. Frank Murkowski selected him to head the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
The council chose John "Ozzie" Osborne to fill the seat until election time and he, James Jenckes and Blaine Gilman are running to fill the seat for the next two years.
The other two seats are three-years terms. They are held by Pat Porter, a four-year council veteran, and Amy Jackman, who has served for two years. Both Porter and Jackman are running for re-election against challengers Barry Eldridge, Rick Ross and Carol Brenckle.
Kenai has an at-large election policy, so voters will choose two names out of the five candidates running for the three-year seats. The top two vote-getters will be elected.
One of the hottest issues to embroil the council and interested members of the community of late has been the Kenai Recreation Center.
The center has been closed since July 10, after the Friends of the Kenai Recreation Center group sued the city over it issuing a management contract for the center to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula without putting it out to a competitive bid first. The council decided to contract out the management of the center in an attempt to save money in a tight budget year.
The council already has taken steps that will likely have the center reopened in about a month, no matter who wins the election. Even so, the issue has been a hot one this election season.
The incumbents have come down on different sides of the issue. Osborne and Jackman voted not to approve the partnership agreement, while Porter voted for it.
Other candidates have weighed in on the matter, as well. Brenckle has come out against the partnership agreement and is involved in the Friends group. Jenckes' preference is to have the center run by city management, instead of private contractors.
On the other side of the issue, Ross has said he thinks a management partnership agreement should be considered if it would save the city money without decreasing the services the center offers. Eldridge also has said he thinks a noncity management entity could probably run the center more efficiently. Gilman is in favor of outsourcing city facility management in general, including the rec center.
A stir arose regarding the Friends group last week after it asked candidates to fill out a detailed, 31-question survey regarding their views on issues surrounding the rec center and other matters. The candidates were given until 5 p.m. Thursday to complete and return the survey and were warned they would be given a "negative rating" if they did not do so.
Porter, Ross and Jenckes did not return the surveys, saying there didn't seem to be much point to it, since candidate signs were displayed at the Friends' headquarters before the survey deadline, so it seemed the group already had its mind made up as to who to support.
The Friends group, on the other hand, responded that the signs displayed at its headquarters were not an endorsement from the Friends group but the result of the office renters' policy to approve requests to post signs there.
The Friends group also completed and submitted a referendum petition to the city to put the question of whether the club should manage the center to a vote of the people. If approved, the matter would have appeared on the Oct. 7 ballot. The petition was determined to have an adequate number of valid signatures, but was rejected because under the city charter, referendum petitions must pertain to ordinances, not contracts, according to the city attorney Cary Graves.
Along with the rec center, the city's budget gave the council heartburn this year.
The closure of Big Kmart, lowered interest rates, the rising cost of insurance, state funding cuts and other matters had the council looking at a nearly $500,000 deficit in the fiscal year deficit at one point. The council enacted several cost-saving measures in the fiscal year 2004 budget, including cutting four full-time and 14 part-time employees, reducing the council's salary, requiring employees to contribute to their health care costs, cutting building maintenance, eliminating the dust control program on unpaved city streets during the summer, reducing the city dock and Multipurpose Facility operations by two months, contracting out the operation of the Kenai Recreation Center, cutting the city's contract with the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau by $10,000, reducing travel expenses and other operating accounts and cutting the library's hours and funding to buy books.
The mill rate was increased by 1.5 mills, as well, with Porter, Jackman and Osborne all voting in favor of the measure.
Whoever is elected to the three seats likely will not face as many tough budgetary decisions as the current council has, since finances are looking up for the city. Home Depot is moving into the building Big Kmart vacated, which will replace some of the lost sales tax revenues, some initial city cost estimates turned out to be not as high as expected and the city got some one-time funding from the state in lieu of the yearly funding that was cut.
Still, however, Kenai isn't out of the woods as far as being in the red is concerned, and several candidates have economic stimulus ideas they hope to put in place if elected. Others say they may not have all the ideas but will be willing to listen to their constituents, if they care to be involved beyond just election day.
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