Navarre retains assembly presidency

5-to-4 vote overcomes Sprague challenge; Merkes unanimous choice as V.P.

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

It's a partial changing of the guard for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

In a secret ballot, five out of nine assembly members supported Tim Navarre's bid for a second term as president, with Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, receiving four votes. Grace Merkes, of Sterling, won the assembly's unanimous approval to become vice president, a position Sprague has held for the past year.

"I appreciate the support and look forward to working with other assembly members and moving forward on a number of issues," Navarre said.

Merkes has been on the assembly for 10 years. This is her first time to serve as an officer.

"It was nice that it was a unanimous vote," she said. "I certainly think I can do an excellent job in case the president isn't there. I'm ready."


Tim Navarre

Sprague, who said he believes that officers should serve for a year and then make room for others, said, "The five-four vote does not reflect a divided assembly. It reflects a wide range of opinions."


Grace Merkes

Sprague was an outspoken opponent of the borough's interest in constructing and operating the state's first private prison. The project was overwhelmingly rejected on more than 73 percent of the ballots cast by borough voters on Oct. 2. Navarre supported exploring the project.

"My position on the prison was a factor in my decision to seek the position of presiding officer," Sprague said. "There was obviously a different opinion among assembly members about the project, and I just felt that the way the vote went against the project, that it also indicated it might be time for a change."

Gary Superman, newly elected to represent Nikiski on the assembly, said Tuesday's meeting "was kind of like deja vu all over again." He served on the assembly from 1989 until 1992, when it consisted of 16 seats.

"Some things have changed, some are pretty similar to what they used to be," he said.

What remains the same are the politics.

"There's always that division, which is a good thing," Superman said. "Sometimes more division is better than less."

Changes included the relative brevity of Tuesday's meeting, which adjourned shortly before 9 p.m.

"There were only two times we got out much before midnight," Superman said, adding that the difference in assembly size is part of the reason. "Everyone used to pretty much talk about everything, so that's probably one of the reasons it used to last so long."

Laughing, Superman added, "There's still some talkers there."

The change in numbers also equals an increase in workload.

"There's certainly a lot more to do," Superman said. "There used to be five of us out in this district, so we were able to share information, work together and fill in for each other. Now it's left up to one person."

Of particular interest to Superman on Tuesday's agenda was the presentation of Nikiski's community action plan brought before the assembly by Fred Miller, president of the North Peninsula Community Council, and Pat Heath, secretary of the council. Miller said work began on the plan last year, when Nikiski residents faced deteriorating road conditions, closure of the highway maintenance station and concerns over adequate police protection. The plan describes Nikiski's vision for the future and goals to make that vision a reality.

"Fred's put together a great plan," Superman said. "He's really taken the bull by the horns and set out some priorities, parameters and projects. It's a great thing to see."

With Sterling residents currently working on a community plan, Merkes also was interested in Nikiski's plan.

"I notice from glancing at it that their goals are pretty much what Sterling residents said they like about our community -- the rural atmosphere, not too many regulations, openness and space," she said.

The assembly stumbled over introduction of an ordinance by Sprague to create an appointed board of adjustment as opposed to the assembly sitting in that capacity. Sprague said maintaining impartiality when hearing appeals on administrative actions in planning, platting and land-use matters can be difficult for elected officials.

"We're not doing our responsibility if we can't help our constituents," he said.

Not everyone on the assembly shared his view.

"Basically, you have to be able to divide what you're doing as an assembly person and what you're doing as a board of adjustment," Merkes said. "If there have been problems, I've just told people that I cannot talk about that subject until it comes up at the BOA. They seem to accept that and understand that. I think they are glad it's an elected official rather than someone appointed by the mayor or the assembly that makes those decisions."

The ordinance was introduced on a 5-to-4 vote, with Merkes, Navarre, Superman and Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, voting against it. It will be scheduled for a Nov. 20 public hearing.

Mayor Dale Bagley won kudos from the assembly for the success of Saturday's outcry land auction. Twenty-four parcels of borough land, including 11 from the Russian Gap subdivision in Cooper Landing, were up for bid. Fifteen sold, for a total of $1,251,000, more than 7 percent above the fair market value of the tracts. After two additional lots sold over the counter Monday morning, total sales to date reached $1,405,600.

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