Runoffs are routine in borough

Peninsula has long history of calling voters back to polls

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2005

When John Torgerson and John Williams meet in the municipal runoff election Oct. 25, the two mayoral candidates will be walking a well-beaten path.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough has a long history of runoff elections for everything from mayor to service area boards.

The last runoff for mayor was necessary when incumbent Mayor Mike Navarre, who led a five-candidate field, failed to garner more than half the total votes. That put him in a head-to-head contest with Dale Bagley, who had finished second. Bagley defeated Navarre in the runoff, and went on to be re-elected easily in 2002.

Prior to the mid-1990s, runoff elections were more common in the borough, because candidates seeking assembly, school board and service area board seats were required to garner 40 percent of the vote in order to win outright. In races with more than two candidates, the requirement often forced runoffs.

In 1996, the borough assembly passed an ordinance dropping the 40 percent provision in favor of a simple majority. The voters agreed to the change, which took effect in 1997. The ordinance left intact the 50 percent provision for ma-yoral races, however.

According to rec-ords available on the borough's Web site, the first election to require a runoff occurred in 1972. (The borough incorporated in 1964). R. H. Bjerregaard got 748 votes, defeating Barbara Banta (376 votes) for a three-year assembly seat.

The following year, another assembly race required a runoff, and in 1974 still another.

The first runoff for borough mayor happened in 1975. It was close. Don Gilman defeated Stan Thompson by just 112 votes. That same year, a three-year seat on the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board also required a runoff.

Homer hospital board races apparently were spirited contests in the 1970s, because in 1976, another South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board race was decided by runoff.

A runoff pitted four candidates for two school board seats in 1977, the first runoff for the board.

Runoffs were becoming an unavoidable fact of life, thanks to a state law that provided municipalities no way to avoid them. Election results in 1978 and 1979 were clear and no runoffs were required.

By this time, however, the borough assembly had had enough. Members passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass a proposed senate bill dumping the 40 percent provision. The bill never made it out of committee.

Then came1980, and runoffs were back in style.

That year, runoff elections were necessary to decide not only who would be borough mayor, but who would win four hotly contested seats on the 16-member assembly, as well as a seat on the school board, and — you guessed it — South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board.

Stan Thompson outpolled Keith Campbell to become mayor (a one-year term). The following year, Stan Thompson won another over challenger Vince O'Reilly, this time earning a three-year term as mayor.

The assembly passed another resolution seeking relief from the Legislature from the delays and additional expenses caused by the law.

Again, nothing happened; at least not right away. Runoffs were needed again in 1983, 1984 and 1985.

In 1985, the Legislature approved amended language giving municipalities the ability to skirt the 40 percent requirement by ordinance and declare as winners those who simply got the most votes. That change did not affect races for mayor.

The assembly didn't get around to changing borough law until 1997, however, even though runoffs had been necessary in 1990 for an assembly seat, in 1993 for a school board seat, in 1995 for a school board seat and again in 1996 for an assembly seat.

"I was the last assembly member to have to run in a runoff," said Bill Popp, now borough liaison to the oil and gas industry. The runoff hadn't been particularly expensive for him, he said, but it had involved jumping through "a lot of hoops" and spending a lot of dollars on the part of the borough.

Mayor Dale Bagley, then a member of the assembly, opposed the change.

"I believe in runoffs," he said. "I didn't agree with the assembly when they did it."

He noted that he wouldn't have won the mayor's job he's held for six years had a runoff not been required in 1999.

A runoff election generally costs less than a regular election, said Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs, in part because the borough spends fewer dollars on advertising than it typically does prior to a regular election.

"But we still have to set up polling sites, pay poll workers and precinct chairs, order ballots and have supplies on hand," she said. "So it's not that much less."

Borough Finance Director Scott Holt said it cost roughly $27,000 just for labor to conduct the 2004 regular municipal election. He did not have a breakdown for supplies, ballots and the like, nor figures for the latest municipal election.

Biggs said runoff elections don't usually draw as many voters to the polls as do regular municipal elections.

In 1999, a mayoral-race year and the last time a runoff was required, approximately 8,800 people cast ballots in the regular election. About 8,000 returned to the polls three weeks later to vote again in the mayoral runoff. Those figures represent 25.37 percent and 22.9 percent turnouts, respectively.

In 2002, the next mayoral race year, the turnout was 30.56 percent, meaning not even a third of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots.

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