Assembly discusses its process

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

"If you build it, they will come," might work for ball fields and baseball fans, but it doesn't guarantee public participation in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

For John Kistler of Kasilof it boils down to logistics and personal responsibility.

"The district I live in is so large -- and always has been -- that, in essence, I have no representation," said Kistler, whose lives 30 miles from the home of his representative, Paul Fischer.

"If I want the assembly to know what I think about some things, I have to go tell them."

Grace Merkes of Sterling announced at Tuesday's assembly meeting her interest in increasing public involvement.

"I feel that too much discussion and decisions are made at committee meetings and by the time they get to the assembly, the hearings are really useless because decisions have basically already been made," she said.

Her plan calls for elimination of committee meetings. Special issues could be are handled by appointed committees or workshops open for public comment.

According to borough code, the assembly meets at 7 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of each month, unless changed by resolution. Four committees -- lands, finance, legislative and committee of the whole -- begin earlier in the day, generally at 1 p.m.

"I feel like the public has lost so much interest and respect, if you will, for the assembly and the process, that they really feel disenfranchised from what's happening on the assembly and in the borough," Merkes said.

As an example, she pointed to the development of a private prison that was considered by the assembly but rejected by borough voters Oct. 2.

"I think that issue brought it out pretty much that the process needs to be changed on how information is given and taken from the public."

Fischer used Tuesday's meeting as an example of the impact committee activity has on the evening assembly meeting.

"You could see that everything was programmed before the meeting," Fischer said.

Options to Merkes' idea, said Fischer, include a 6 p.m. start time, stretching the meetings over two evenings or holding them on Saturdays. He said the schedule should be "for the convenience of the people that vote us in" and suggested a change in meeting times might encourage assembly candidates.

"If you look at the present assembly, I don't think anyone on there right now is a wage or hourly employee," he said. "We need to get people who have regular jobs to get on the assembly, but they can't go to an employer and say they want two times off a month."

To cut meeting length, Fischer suggested a time limit on assembly comments, similar to the three-minute limit on public testimony.

Milli Martin of Homer commended Merkes for raising the issue and looked forward to getting voter comments. Afternoon committee meetings allow interested members of the public to attend, testify and return home during daylight hours. On the flip side, Martin said unless people attend the afternoon meetings, "they're kind of missing out."

From the other side of the peninsula, Ron Long of Seward also saw other sides of the issue.

"People that I've heard from in my area view it as two opportunities for public input," Long said. "I kind of like the idea of giving people an option."

High school students were in attendance Tuesday, including several from Linda Raemaeker's government class at Skyview High School.

Taylor Magone drew a good-natured laugh from the assembly when he described the meeting as "vastly stimulating."

Raemaeker's students attend assembly and city council meetings as part of a unit on local government.

"It gets the students more actively involved and to at least know the process," she said. "It generates classroom discussion of what's going on in the area and is a chance for them to see the members, to know what the local issues are and how the process works."

Representatives from Nikiski High School were on hand to receive two commending resolutions. One recognized the school's football team as the Alaska School Activities Association Small-Schools State Champions for 2001. The second recognized the Nikiski Bulldog athletes who made the 2001 Alaska All-State Football Small-Schools Team.

A group of peninsula residents was on hand to support passage of an ordinance conveying property on Kalifornsky Beach Road to the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Associa-tion. The ordinance was enacted as amended.

For the most part, however, hearings on eight ordinances went without public testimony.

Will changing meeting times have any impact?

"I wish I could say differently, but I don't believe any more of the public will have any more interest in the assembly unless it hits them in the wallet or at home," Kistler said. "That's the only two things that seem to bring people out. If they have a road they want fixed, they show up. If there's a tax increase they don't like, they show up. If they want money for whatever organization, they show up. I think we call this government by special interest group."

Kistler commended the assembly for its efforts to keep the public involved and encouraged other borough residents to become involved with the assembly.

Other action taken by the assembly included the following ordinances scheduled for public hearings:

n Acquisition and appropriation of $121,000 to purchase two lots for addition to the South Peninsula Hospital -- tabled;

n Acceptance and appropriation of a $44,032 grant for the Bear Creek Fire Service Area wellness and fitness programs -- enacted as amended;

n Receipt and appropriation of a $3,100 grant to Bear Creek Fire Service Area -- enacted;

n Third of four hearings on planning commission membership and apportionment -- amended and postponed until Nov. 20;

n Authorization of a land exchange to acquire a former Anchor Point material site for a solid waste transfer facility and provide the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities with a maintenance site on East End Road, Homer -- postponed until the Dec. 11 meeting;

n Authorization of a lease with option to purchase land for the Cooper Landing Post Office -- enacted as amended; and

n Apportionment and composition of the borough assembly seats -- enacted.

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