Change seeks more accessible process

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

Proving its own point, an ordinance seeking to change the way the Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly conducts business sparked discussion and testimony during a Tuesday afternoon committee meeting, but quietly sailed through introduction without comment. It is now poised for a Jan. 8 hearing; however, assembly members say there may not be the votes needed to enact the changes being called for by sponsor Grace Merkes, of Sterling.

The ordinance is a response to public concern that discussions, information and informal decisions are being made during committee meetings instead of assembly meetings, Merkes said. Unlike the evening session, committee meetings are neither recorded nor broadcast. Her ordinance would revise borough code so that:

Temporary committees would replace standing committees, addressing special issues as needed;

Workshops could be requested by the special committees or by the assembly president;

Committee chairs would be responsible for arranging the recording of committee meetings and also could request meeting minutes;

Assembly meetings would begin at 5 p.m. rather than 7 p.m.; and

The ordinance would be in effect for one year unless amended or extended.

"The public does not feel connected to the assembly," said Ruby Kime, of Ninilchik.

Kime testified during committee in support of the ordinance. She blamed the disconnect on geographic distances separating borough residents from assembly meetings and the public's unfamiliarity with procedures and lack of knowledge about government and the importance of personal involvement. The result, Kime said, is frustration and a sense that individual input doesn't matter.

"The reason (the public) is willing to give up is because in the education system they don't get civics and they don't understand their rights and obligation," Kime said. "They don't know how important it is to participate in government or else it gets away from you."

She recommended that assembly members make themselves available to constituents in the communities they represent.

Assembly member Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, said creating opportunities for people to participate is the goal.

"If people don't want to take the opportunity, OK, that's up to them," he said. "Thank goodness we don't meet on Monday night or we'd lose out to football."

Milli Martin, assembly member from the southern peninsula, said introduction of Merkes' ordinance is an open door for discussion at the January meeting. Like Fischer, she said the assembly's role is to make government accessible.

"There may not be too many people (who participate), but that opportunity has to be there for them," Martin said.

During an afternoon committee meeting, GCI presented information on broadcasting assembly meetings via cable television.

"That would take care of 3,700 subscribers in the central peninsula area," said Kenai assembly member Bill Popp. "That's a step in the right direction."

Other avenues being considered by individual assembly members for increasing public participation include teleconferencing and web casting.

Tuesday's discussion-magnet was Soldotna assembly member Pete Sprague's attempt to change the makeup of the board of adjustment. Currently, the assembly hears appeals on issues of planning, platting and land-use matters. Using the Matanuska-Susitna Borough as a model, the ordinance would have freed the assembly of that role, replacing it with members of the public. The board's quasi-judicial responsibility for rendering impartial decisions is a roadblock to helping constituents resolve issues, Sprague said.

The majority of the assembly believed otherwise. The ordinance was defeated on a 3-to-6 vote, with only Sprague, Martin and Ron Long, of Seward, voting in its favor.

"The board of adjustment's single role is to judge whether the process has been followed correctly," Popp said. "Based on that, the best people to do the job are the people who have passed the laws. That's why I voted against the ordinance."

Fischer was surprised the ordinance got as much support as it did.

"The best argument is always that we're elected to make the decisions," he said.

Sales tax is a topic that strikes a responsive chord from the public and the assembly. Assembly President Tim Navarre has appointed Fischer, Sprague and Chris Moss, of Homer, to tackle the subject.

"We're going to look at the total sales tax structure," Fischer said. "I, for one, have been asking people to look at sales tax for food. Awhile back, I was going to take out a petition to take the tax off food, but we'll see what comes out of the committee."

Popp said Fischer, Sprague and Moss have their work cut out for them.

"As complex as this issue is, I'll be pleased if we see some kind of changing ordinance by end of summer," he said. "The three members who took that committee on are definitely going to earn their keep over the next few months."

What did draw a crowd Tuesday night was the Soldotna High School boys cross-country team. A commending resolution presented by Sprague acknowledged the team as Kenai Peninsula Borough champions for the fourth year in a row and state champions for the third year in a row.

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