Assembly Mulls Final Question On Anadromous Streams Protections

Next week, the Borough Assembly will tackle the second half of the anadromous streams protection issue. Following more than five hours of public testimony from more than 100 members of the public, the Assembly voted not to repeal protections that were already on the books.

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The next part of this battle is ordinance 2013-18, which basically modifies what the Assembly voted to keep in place at its last meeting. It adopts special exceptions to the fifty foot set-back at the heart of the ordinance, for lake front properties and prior existing uses and structures. Assembly members Wolf, Pierce and Taurienen voted for repeal last time. It’s probably a safe bet they’ll also vote against the new version. In his comments at the end of the last meeting, Charlie Pierce made it clear what his constituency wants.

“Funny River Road and Sterling want you to educate our kids, want you to take care of the roads, want you to haul the trash, want you to make sure a fire engine or ambulance show up when we need it. I don’t want animal control, I don’t want zoning. My constituents have spoken to me. They don’t want this to go. If you have the courage to pass this, I hope you’re never elected to another office again. I hope the folks remember that vote for you,” Pierce said to some applause.

His sharp criticism of the proposed ordinance drew an equally sharp response from Assembly member Bill Smith.

“As far as Mr. Pierce’s impassioned defense of the property owners along Sterling and Funny River, really, repealing 2011-12 doesn’t effect them for the most part. They’ve been regulated since either 1996 or 2000. So regardless of how loudly he (Pierce) shouts about 2011-12, those properties aren’t effected by that, and it would be good if he would actually read the ordinances before he talks about them.

Assembly member Mako Haggerty noted that many of the voices against these new measures are long time private property owners who do know how take good care of their land so it’s healthy for fish. But that’s not enough.

“What I’m concerned about are the people coming behind you, after us…the ones who didn’t show up here tonight, those are the ones I’m concerned about. And I don’t think that they have the same stewardship for their property as the rest of us do. I commend the property owners that are here tonight because I believe they’re good stewards of that property,” Haggerty said.

            The comments made by Assembly members were likely the last on the issue. There won’t be any public testimony next week, since people were allowed to speak to both measures last time. The Assembly is set to vote Tuesday July second.


Kenai Teen Learns D.C. Ropes

Every year, Senator Lisa Murkowski has a few high-school-aged interns work out of her office in Washington, DC. Kenai’s Duncan Brewer has been at the Capitol for the last several weeks learning the ropes.

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To say Kelli Brewer is proud of her son is an understatement. Duncan is one of those kids who is involved with basically everything. He volunteers with local organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and the Wounded Warrior Project. He’s helped grow a community garden and donated food to the Kenai Food Bank.

Duncan is an athlete. He plays football and will actually be heading down to Australia next month to compete in the Down Under Bowl. Then to top it off,  he has a great singing voice.

“I miss the singing around the house, and the music from instruments around the house. I miss hearing about how his day went and what he did that day. I don’t get to hear about that anymore,” Duncan’s mom Kelli said.

She said while she gets updates about his life outside the Capitol, a strict policy in Senator Murkowski’s office prevents him from talking about what he does at work. Kelli said Duncan has known the senator since the age of 8 or 9 when he went to Murkowski’s Take a Kid Fishing Tournament.

“And he arrived there with a can of fart putty and a friend from the Air Force base. While Lisa was talking to his friend, Duncan was playing with his fart putty. And Lisa said ‘hey, I know what that is,’” Kelli said.

Kelli said he has matured since then. And she’s noticed a change in the way he talks about things since getting to the Capitol.

“There’s a different edge in this voice of a little bit more awareness and maturity, which I’m really happy to see. Lisa’s the only senator who takes interns out of high school. They spend one day a week with her, shadowing her. So he is with her through the whole process. And I think it really has encouraged some… serious thinking on his behalf on how he feels about things,” she said.

Another thing Kelli said she’s noticed is that Duncan has been settling pretty well into his new environment.

“There’s a subway that kind of goes underneath the Capitol, and Duncan did tell me the other day… ‘Yeah, I got onto the subway and John McCain came on.’ And I said ‘Did you get a chance to talk to him.’ And he goes ‘No mom, jeez… I deal with very powerful people right now and John McCain is just another one of them,’” she said.

-Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


Russian River The Hot Spot With King Fishing Shut Down

Despite several orders from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game modifying some salmon fisheries already, anglers have had ample opportunity to reel in a catch on the Russian River.
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Drift boats were going in and out of the water all day on the Russian, just a few miles west of Cooper Landing. With early run king salmon fisheries shut down across the Kenai Peninsula, the Russian has been booming. It’s probably a safe bet that most of the lines and nets in the water here are intended for sockeye. The early run has been so strong that Fish and Game increased the bag limit to six and the possession limit to 12 here and on the Upper Kenai River.

Fish and Game  issued an emergency order June 18th closing down sport fishing for kings on the Kenai, and prohibited bait and multiple hooks on the Kasilof River for hatchery kings. Rivers on the southern Kenai Peninsula were closed to king fishing almost as soon as the first ones came through back in May. The battle waged over the winter to figure out who could fish, and when, during times of low king abundance is far from settled. Commercial setnetters will be looking to get into the water in a few weeks, but like last year, that will be determined by the projected strength of the king run. Right now, it doesn’t look too strong. A total run of 1,500 to 2,500 fish is projected by the Department. As of June 16th, fewer than a thousand had been picked up by sonar counters. The optimal escapement goal is between 5,300 and 9,000 fish. Sockeye are a different story, though. Numbers on the Russian have already hit levels seen last year, around 25,000 fish, about three weeks before the Department stops counting. Projections for the Kenai river run are down slightly from last year, at 4.4 million, but still well above the 20 year average.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


“Suds: The Musical Soap Opera” Showcases Hits From The 60’s

Elan Krull, Spencer McAuliffe, Selia Butler and Alyeska Krull will perform in "Suds" beginning this Friday at 7 p.m.

 

The Kenai Performers are opening two weekends of performances of the musical soap opera “SUDS” this Friday.

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Tickets for “SUDS” are $40 and on sale now at Curtain Call, Charlotte’s, River City Books and Coffee Roasters. The show runs June 21, 22, 28 and 29 at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Merit Inn.


Hilcorp Fined $115,000 For Permit Violations

Citing “aggressiveness” in its operations, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has handed down several orders to energy producer Hilcorp, and a $115,000 civil penalty.

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In its decision and order dated April 10th, AOGCC says Hilcorp failed to notify the agency of changes to an approved permit and that the company failed to test blowout prevention equipment. All of this comes from work done last October in the Soldotna Creek Unit on the central Kenai Peninsula.

The agency found that Hilcorp had started drilling at a depth 500 feet shallower than approved. That drilling happened in an over-pressurized zone which required closure of the  rig’s blow out prevention equipment, or BOPE. After changing out that equipment, drilling continued, but without a proper test of the BOPE.

Hilcorp did notify the agency that it had used that equipment to control the flow of formation fluids, and that’s when it found out about the change in drilling depth.

“This violation was self-reported because we strongly believe in operating safely and responsibly and we don’t take that lightly,” said Hilcorp spokesperson Lori Nelson.

She says as part of the order handed down by the commission, new training measures are in place for Hilcorp’s contractors.

“So what we’re doing is making sure we’re having that face-to-face interaction with those folks that are in the field, on the ground, in these types of situations, making sure that they are keenly aware of the regulations in place surrounding what they do,” she said.

The agency’s three commissioners all signed off on the order. And they were nothing if not blunt in writing their findings. They said “the aggressiveness with which Hilcorp is moving forward with operations appears to be contributing to regulatory compliance issues.” They also noted 13 separate enforcement actions issued between April and December of last year. Nelson acknowledges that the company operates with a sense of urgency, but…

“Urgency for us doesn’t mean get it done fast at any cost, it means get it done the right way, as quickly as possible. Being a new company, getting up to speed in some cases has been great, in other cases has presented challenges, but in every opportunity we’ve had, we’ve taken that and hopefully turned it around for a positive in the long run,” Nelson said.

The order also called for more communication between Hilcorp and AOGCC, including a detailed description of its regulatory compliance program, a root cause analysis addressing the violations and evidence that staff involved with permitting be trained in the agency’s regulatory requirements.

“We definitely take a different approach in that we are very open and transparent with regulators, stakeholders and the community. We hope that that will continue as our business continues to grow here in Alaska,” she said.

The initial penalty was $75,000, plus other smaller fines for failure to notify the agency of a change in well plans and failure to test blowout prevention equipment. In all, $115,000, which Nelson says has been paid in full.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Assembly Votes To Keep Anadromous Stream Protections In Place

Assembly Chambers were packed as more than 100 people testified on changes to the Borough's habitat protection ordninance.

 

After hearing more than 100 public comments about proposed changes to the Borough’s anadromous habitat protection ordinance, the Assembly was able to get in a vote on one of two proposals on the agenda before adjourning at its midnight deadline.

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The Assembly chambers were packed with residents. Some concerned about an overbearing, overreaching government body. Others concerned with doing whatever necessary to protect salmon-rearing habitat on the Peninsula. Before the Assembly were two ordinances. The first would have repealed provisions in Borough code that expanded protections to all water bodies listed in a state catalog of anadromous waters. The now infamous 2011-12. The second would repeal that, and instead base the habitat protection district on an appendix indentifying salmon streams, and providing exceptions for prior existing uses and structures. Ken Tarbox, a member of the Mayor’s Task Force that tried to find some compromises to the ordinance enacted in 2011 that’s been at the root of all this, was one of the first to testify.

“Citizens of this Borough value personal freedoms and wild Alaskan salmon. They are the same as motherhood and apple pie in our culture. No one will say they don’t want to protect salmon, or that they like lots of government regulations. My view as a Task Force member was to help create an ordinance that has minimal level of riperian habitat protection and accommodates reasonable use within the regulatory habitat area. In my opinion, the Task Force recommendations accomplish that,” he said.

The comments came in two distinct waves. Following Tarbox’s testimony, voices in opposition to the expanded scope of the regulations came forward for nearly two hours.

“Please respect the personal rights and private property rights of the landowners here who pay the taxes. If you want to go after somebody, go after the hordes of tourists that get on state parks and trample them down,” said Bill Yant of Soldotna.

At times, the testimony both for and against was emotional. And times, flat out testy. For the most part, those speaking to the Assembly respected the three minute time limit they were given. Assembly president had to shout over Nikiski resident and future Assembly candidate Wayne Ogle when he did not yield after the three minutes.

Amid references to UN agendas and government land grabs, there was little said by the opposition about the notion of the rights of all Borough residents to have continued access to the fisheries resource that makes up the foundation of the local economy.

Somewhere around the third hour of the meeting, a wave of supporters for the ordinance came forward.

“Not protecting this resource would be a mistake and protecting it would be a collective decision that can benefit our social, cultural and environmental resources. I believe it is our civic responsibility to support 2013-18 and start treating our resources as a collective and shared wealth for the prosperity of future generations in this community. That’s not communism; to me, that’s common sense,” said Kenai resident Branden Bornemann.

Many of the supporters were longtime Peninsula residents, with property directly affected by the ordinance.

“I’m here to address issues in my backyard and my community. Not world affairs or international relations. My family has enjoyed the opportunities and benefits of living on the Kenai Peninsula for nearly 40 years. And we’ve witnessed the tremendous growth and change throughout these years. I support the proactive approach to protection of anadromous stream habitat and believe it to be the most effective and cost effective means to do what we as citizens can do to afford future generations some of the high quality experiences we here tonight have been privileged to enjoy,” said Ann Bays of Anchor Point.

The back and forth between support and dissent went on until close to midnight, with the Assembly finally taking a vote on the first ordinance.

Charlie Pierce, Kelly Wolf and Ray Taurienen voted to repeal the expanded protection ordinance, but it was upheld. Following that vote, there wasn’t enough time left to tackle the second half of the equation. That will have to wait until the Assembly’s next meeting on July 2nd.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Openings, Restrictions Announced For Peninsula Fisheries

Fishing season is well underway around the Peninsula and the Department of Fish and Game announced several openings and restrictions Tuesday.

The Kenai River early run king salmon fishery will be closed from June 20th to the 30th. Through June 13th, the Department had counted just 795 kings through its DIDSON sonar counters. The optimal escapement goal is between 5,300 and 9,000 fish.

On the Kasilof, a prohibition of bait and multiple hooks will be in place beginning June 20th running through the 30th. Single hook means a fishhook with only one point, with or without a barb. The sustainable escapement goal for kings on the Kasilof is between 650 and 1,700 fish. Escapement has only barely reached that lower range the past two years. A previous restriction to harvest only hatchery-reared king salmon remains in effect.

At the Russian River Sanctuary, though, sockeye sportfishing is opening up, as of 8 o’clock Wednesday morning. The sanctuary includes waters upstream from just below the ferry crossing on the Kenai River just above Sportsmans Landing. ADF&G regulatory markers are out to indicate the precise sanctuary location. There’s a daily bag and possession limit of three sockeye.

-Staff Report-


Mural Paints Picture Of Peninsula’s History

The Adcox Mural Project was made possible by the Rasmuson Foundation through the Arts in Education Fund.

Triumvirate Theatre continues progress on remodeling its new location north of Kenai. They had an open house this week to showcase a mural by local artist James Adcox that will be a focal point of the building.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Local 4-Hers Pitching Livestock Sales Ahead of State Fair

The Kenai Peninsula Fair is months away, but 4-H members prepare all year for the event.  The projects include raising livestock, presenting them to judges, and selling them.  But right now, youngsters are doing some presentations to local businesses about their work.  4-H member, Mikaela Pitsch gave her sales presentation at KDLL studio.

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In case you missed it, it’s definitely summer on the Kenai. And for local 4-H’ers, that means getting ready for the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in August. For Mikaela Pitsch, it means making the rounds to talk about the Junior Market Livestock.

“Junior Market Livestock is where anyone from third grade through senior year can raise any kind of animal, from poultry to steers. And they get a chance to show what they worked on through the summer and they get to sell their animal for…a lot of money, actually,” Pitsch said.

Pitsch will be a freshman next fall, but she’s kind of an old pro at this. Last year, she raised and sold her pig Oinker, a reserve grand champion.

The money she made with Oinker went straight into her college savings account. She, and other 4-H’ers who are raising cattle, pigs, sheep, reindeer and even turkeys this year, are hoping for a continued interest in locally raised livestock. Pitsch hopes to bring home the bacon (sorry) this year with another pig. Named Bacon. Bacon, it turns out, is kind of a finicky eater.

“Jim Rogers, he’s like the pig expert down here, and he gave us a workshop. He told us if your pig’s not gaining a lot of weight you can take the powdered food…and mix molasses in and powdered goat’s milk and a couple eggs to make their coat shiny. But my pig won’t eat it, so I try to put some marshmallows or graham crackers or something that it likes to eat in there,” she said.

Pitsch says she’ll be spending this year at the fair with her two younger brothers, both of whom are getting involved in the 4-H world of raising livestock. The Kenai Peninsula State Fair is coming up August 16th, 17th and 18th in Ninilchik.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


“A Long Complicated History” For The Kenai Comprehensive Plan

Voters will have the opportunity to keep or reject the amended comp plan, first drawn up in January, on October 2nd.

In October, voters in Kenai will be asked to settle the debate about the city’s latest comprehensive plan. Over the years, the plan has been reworked and revisited, but it hasn’t always sat well with residents. This one is no different.

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Fighting city hall has never been easy.

“But it gets harder all the time now…you just get tired of doing the fight. We’ve done a pretty good job of doing it, but you eventually wear people out,” said Kenai resident Mark Schrag.

He’s been sort of leading the charge against the city’s comprehensive plan for the past ten months. But he says the battle to keep neighborhoods and business districts separate in Kenai is a fight dating back nearly three decades.

“We always go back to the 1985 agreement, which was before me, where a number of the people who still live in this neighborhood made agreements with the city and they feel the city is reneging on some of that stuff now….It’s a long complicated history.”

Schrag lives in the MAPS subdivision of Kenai, the area on the east end of town adjacent to the Spur highway. There are a lot of changes in the newest version of this comp plan, but Schrag and many of his neighbors don’t like the reclassification of that area. A lot of areas that had been classified as rural residential would be redefined as mixed use. They say it leaves the door open for too much commercial development where long-established neighborhoods exist.

“The businesses are going to come, that’s going to take care of itself, and then hopefully you regulate that. And the businesses should be in hubs is one of the big things we’re saying. Not just spread out, helter skelter, but in hubs. So we’re not against development by any means, but (want) what we would say is smart development. (It’s) a difference in philosophy.”

That’s a major sticking point for people who don’t like the plan the city council approved back in April. They say it doesn’t do enough to promote a real town center that would keep businesses centrally located and away from outlying neighborhoods. But the city grew up in a time, and continues to grow in a way, that makes that difficult. I spoke with Kenai Mayor Pat Porter recently during one of her Coffee with the Mayor meetings at City Hall and she offered a little historical perspective.

“When I moved here in 1969, the downtown had split out a little bit and it went over to where the old Carrs Mall is. And that was it. That was town. End of story,” she said.

The relationship between the city’s airport and the Federal Aviation Administration further complicate things. A lot of land in Kenai belongs to the airport. A lot of commercial development has occurred on that land. By leasing or selling off parcels, the airport can remain self-sustaining. But the FAA has a lot of say in how those transactions happen.

“When somebody comes like Wal-Mart, and wants to buy a piece of property that was part of that (airport) parcel, there’s no deals to be made. It has to be leased or sold at fair market value. And that’s where Lowe’s was, that’s where the Senior Center was and the old Carrs Mall. All that property basically came from where the airport used to be,” Porter said.

What all of this means is that Kenai hasn’t developed like most towns. You can argue that there’s a town center around the courthouse or some of the parks, but it’s not a downtown. Not a town square around which all business and commerce happens. Porter takes a decidedly pro-growth stance and says if that growth is going to occur, we have to make room for it.

“It’s kind of sad to me that some residents want to keep it the way it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago. You can’t do that. Because then you have happen what happened (about a decade ago) when everyone was joking that Kenai was becoming a ghost town. People were moving out of here, and now we’re selling more real estate and things are actually pretty good,” she said.

Good, unless you feel like you have to fight city hall each time a new plan for growth and development comes up. Mark Schrag has been in that fight several times already. He says between now and October, when voters will get to make a decision about the plan, he some of the other neighbors will be working to get out information and they hope to put up a website soon.

“It’s really been an incredible group of people who have come together and done some of these things. But it’s hard to keep (going). Everybody says ‘What? It’s coming back again? I thought we had that settled.’ It just keeps coming back. I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that culture in this town.”

Voters will get to wigh in


Soldotna Creek Park Improvement Project Gets The Green Light

Soldotna Creek Park overlooking the Kenai River. Improvements planned for this summer include new all-season restrooms, lighting and a paved parking lot.

Work on the Soldotna Creek Park Improvement Project will begin later this summer. The project has been in the planning stages for several years and the city council approved a contract for the work this week.

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The bid for the work at Soldotna Creek Park went to Peninsula Construction and is worth a little less than $1.2 million. Soldotna City Engineer Kyle Kornelis says work will ramp up as fishing season winds down, but visitors to the park will be seeing some action much sooner.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get the contract signed and get moving next week some time,” Kornelis said.

“We’ll sit down with the contractors and the construction meeting and really delineate how folks are going to be able to access the river and pick that hard date for closures so that they can have full site control and actually get everything accomplished that we need to out there,” he said.

Safety will of course be a priority as crews begin the work, but he says the playground portion of the park will be open as much as possible and there will still be access to the Kenai River through July

“We’ll maintain access to the playground throughout the summer and I think in August we will start shutting down the park periodically, if not completely, just so we can get everything accomplished before the winter weather sets in and we can be ready for next season,” he said.

The plans include construction of new restroom facilities, parking lot improvements, a pavilion and covered canopies and memorials for Veterans and recipients of the Purple Heart, all in addition to general landscaping upgrades. Kornelis says events like last weekend’s Kenai River Fest, which saw thousands of people through the park over the course of a few days, highlight the need to put some resources into it.

Funding sources for the project include a couple grants worth about one third of the total cost with much of the rest coming from the general fund. At its meeting Wednesday, the Council increased the amount the city will put toward the project by about sixty percent. The restroom facilities, which will be open year round, and the pavilion were both significantly more costly in the proposals the city got than in the estimates made by the consulting firm the city used to review the bids. That basic bid also includes trail work and lighting, paving the parking lot and irrigation.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Full House Expected When Assembly Votes On Habitat Protection Next Week

The ordinance is designed to continue to promote healthy fish habitats in waters like the Kenai River, pictured. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

 

Next week, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will hold a public hearing on an ordinance designed to protect salmon habitat. The Borough has been in the business of regulating land use in these areas since 1996. But the latest attempt by the Assembly to keep riparian zones healthy for fish was met by a small, but vocal opposition.

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The Borough Assembly has been wrestling with this issue for almost a year. The Task Force put together by Mayor Mike Navarre has finished its work. They came up with a bunch of recommendations to make the ordinance work better. And to resolve some of the complaints. Navarre’s Chief of Staff, Paul Ostrander facilitated that group’s meetings. He says that claims about government overreach are misplaced.

“This is not as significant an increase as a lot of folks think,” Ostrander said on a recent episode of Coffee Table.

“The regulations are the same. The increase is only about 39%, 40% increase in the number of waters that are regulated; it’s not a three or four or five times increase,” he said, addressing claims that the scope of the proposed ordinance would increase dramatically.

This latest version does include more parcels that will fall under the new rules. But it also removes many of the water bodies that would have been included had the Borough simply applied those rules to the State’s catalogue of anadromous waters. There simply wasn’t enough evidence that some of the lakes and streams in the catalogue actually support returning fish to include them in the ordinance. Despite that though, many calls have been made by people opposing the measure that the Borough conduct a thorough study about habitat health here on the Kenai. While the Kenai is certainly a special place, in many ways, it’s not that different from other places around the world that have lost and are trying reclaim their salmon numbers.

“The habitat is critical. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Washington state, Oregon or the Kenai Peninsula. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. And as far as whether the salmon runs are doing well on the Kenai or anywhere else, all we can really do is control what goes on here. We can’t control what goes on out in the ocean. We can’t control what Fish and Game decides to do as far as management of those fish. But what we can do is control is the one thing we know that’s critical; that near shore habitat. You don’t need a scientific study to know that that habitat is critical for the health of those waters,” he said.

There has been plenty of debate about this among Assembly members over the past ten months. But one thing that seems to have common support is a need for more education.  As Ostrander explains, it’s not that rivers and lakes are surrounded by people who are willfully damaging the resource. It’s that they might not always have the best information or tools to promote healthier habitat. If you’ve lived here even for a short time, you’ve heard stories of days gone by before there were any rules at all to protect land adjacent to the Kenai River.

“You know, there were things they wanted to do to park their boat or just to keep the bank from eroding, but they didn’t know how to go about that. So what this ordinance does is it looks for voluntary compliance. The key to this thing working is the River Center folks working with the land owner and make sure that what they’re doing on their property doesn’t damage it.”

The recommendations made by the Task Force that have made their way into the ordinance weren’t adopted unanimously by that group. It was a 5-3 vote. Ostrander says the two sides came together in many areas, but in the end, there were some very basic philosophical differences about what the government’s role should be in protecting habitat areas.

“I know some some of the Task Force members who voted against this…I’ve had lengthy conversations with them and we were always in agreement that the habitat was important.  And it did get to the point where there was a lot of compromises on both sides, but we couldn’t quite get to the point of consensus. But I think they (the dissenting voices on the Task Force) would tell you that there were significant improvements made in this amendment that helps balance private property rights and the public resource that wasn’t there previously,” he said.

The Assembly will hold its public hearing on the measure next Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ostrander says he expects a full house.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Another Turn For Term Limits

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will once again visit the topic of term limits. The Assembly introduced an ordinance at its last meeting to repeal the current limit of two terms.

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The Assembly last addressed term limits about two years ago. That’s when they decided that after serving two full, three year terms, a person would have to wait at least 180 days before beginning another term. The question that will be before the Assembly in a few weeks is whether there should be term limits at all. But that question has been asked, and answered before.

“This has been voted on by the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough three different times,” said Assembly member Kelly Wolf.

“I’m deeply opposed to it even moving forward to a public hearing,” he said.

The Assembly adopted term limits in 1993, repealed them in 1999 and then voters put the two-term limit back in place in a 2007 initiative.

Assembly member Hal Smalley of Kenai is sponsoring this newest version. As drafted, it says the concept behind the drive for term limits is to prevent elected oficials from losing touch with their constituents and becoming career politicians. It goes on to say local officials should be viewed as public servants rather than career politicians, and that the most effective way to limit terms is on election day.

Kelly Wolf cast the only vote against bringing the measure back for a public hearing. But that didn’t mean there was a lot of underlying support for it.

“I too like a good debate,” said Assembly member Charlie Pierce. “I think out of respect for the maker it should be allowed to go to introduction, but I can also echo concerns about it. If this were proposed with some caveat that we would ultimately let the folks vote on it again, then I might be able to support it. But I’ll let the public weigh in on it…if it doesn’t change I’ll vote no on it,” he said.

Some of the Assembly looked back to the voter initiative in 2011 and remembered the loss of institutional knowledge that came with that decision. At that time, Pete Sprague, Paul Fischer and Gary Superman had almost 50 years of service between them, a point not lost on Assembly president Linda Murphy.

“If we had not had term limits, I wouldn’t be sitting here today  because I would have continued to support Pete Sprague…I really miss a lot of the people who were termed out because of the voter initiative and so I would like to see the term limits go away,” she said.

Assembly member Mako Haggerty was on the same page, saying putting a limit on terms also limits choice for voters.

“I don’t think that other people from other parts of the Borough should tell my constituents who can and can’t represent them, I think it’s very undemocratic. And I have a very hard time with the assumptions that we’re trying to make this a career,” he said.

The Assembly will hold a public hearing on whether or not to do away with term limits at its meeting on July 2nd.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Fun In The Sun At The Kenai River Fest

The 23rd annual Kenai River Festival was this weekend in Soldotna. The Kenai Watershed Forum and its partners for the event brought in nearly two dozen bands, all the salmon you cared to eat and some of the best weather of the year.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL, Ariel Van Cleave/KBBI-


Assembly Approves 911 Surcharge Increase

Funding is set for fiscal year 2014 in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The Assembly had few qualms with the Mayor’s proposal, which totaled $73 million dollars, but there were a couple sticking points.

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The Assembly didn’t spend much time debating the fine points of the budget. A total of seven amendments were made. Some of those simply cleaned up language or clarified numbers. Another put $40,000 toward treatment of Daniels and Stormy lakes for the invasive species elodea. The Assembly also voted to decrease funding to the Economic Development District, from $90,000 to $50,000. All of those amendments were discussed and voted on in pretty short order.

But the issue of funding 9-1-1 services took a little more time. The Borough had a $1.50 surcharge in place to help pay for 9-1-1. The mayor recommended an increase of 30 cents a month for mobile lines to help pay for an additional half-time dispatcher. Under state law, the Borough can go after that higher surcharge.

“We were paying more out of the general fund than  we needed to. So we can either pay these funds out of a general fund tax levy or we can assess them against a surcharge allowable under state law,” said Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.

This is basically a change in where some of the money comes from to pay for emergency calls. That department’s budget is just a little under $2 million. The surcharge of $1.50 per phone line covers about sixty percent of that. Then service areas around the Borough kick in some money, and the Borough’s general fund covers the rest, nearly a half million dollars. With a surcharge already in place and money from the general fund dedicated to paying for emergency calls, Assembly member Charlie Pierce wondered if the move amounted to double taxation.

Assembly member Kelly Wolfe offered some historical perspective. During his time in the state legislature, the issue of surcharges and who pays for 9-1-1 services was a hot topic. That was a time when emergency services in some parts of the state were pretty bare-bones.

“At one time, 9-1-1 service calls, in some parts of the state of Alaska, would go to a bar…This one came out and it was a means for municipalities to collect service fees for 9-1-1 service calls. The question is, do we want to dial 9-1-1 and not get anybody,” he said.

That’s a worst-case scenario, of course. The Assembly adopted the increased user fees. So your phone bill will increase by $15.60 a year per line. A savings for the Borough of nearly a quarter million dollars.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Borough Clerk’s Office Rejects Ballot Initiative For Ranked Choice Voting

The Borough Clerk’s office declined a ballot initiative that sought to increase voter turnout by using a vote by mail and ranked choice voting system. Some of the language in the ballot proposal may be at odds with Alaska State Statute.

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Without question, voter turnout for most Borough-wide elections is pretty bad. In regular elections in October of 2011, just for one example, turnout ranged from just six percent in Tyonek to a whopping 28 percent in Cooper Landing. Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship says she thinks about numbers like that each election cycle.

“Because it is incredibly disheartening to mail out 26,000 voter pamphlets and go the post office and see them stacked next to the trash. It doesn’t matter what the voter turnout is going to be, the election takes just as much time and costs the Borough just as much money…I take it personally. I want people to exercise their right and get out there and vote,” she said.

In this area, Blankenship and James Price at least seem to be in agreement. More needs to be done to get voters involved in the process. Price, a realtor and commercial fisherman from Nikiski, is leading the charge for a group of citizens on the Better Elections Initiative. He sees decision by the clerk’s office as an arbitrary roadblock.

“They constantly say these things, but yet they do nothing. Someone has to do something. This initiative solves a problem. I don’t see any alternative we have, they’ve provided no solution, all they’ve provided is obstruction,” Price said.

The initiative does two things. It sends a ballot to every registered voter in the Borough to return by mail. It also provides for ranked choice voting in the event of a runoff. Here’s where things get tricky.

“Ranked choice voting would essentially hold an instant runoff for all of the candidates. And state statute is very clear that if you have a runoff, you have to have it with the top two vote getters. Period,” she said.

In the system proposed by the Better Elections Initiative, voters would rank their candidates of choice, 1, 2, 3, and on down the line. In the event of a runoff, those rankings would determine the winner of a runoff by knocking out the bottom vote getters until someone ends up with a majority of votes, plus one.

The other half of the initiative, the vote by mail stuff; that was fine. It’s supposed to increase voter turnout, though that claim is a little difficult to substantiate. And it’s also supposed to save money.

The basic math works out; the Borough appropriates about $120,000 for elections. The cost of sending a ballot to every voter works out to somewhere in the ball park of half that. Though, Blankenship says the final cost savings, if any, aren’t quite that easy to determine. Vote by mail would eliminate the need for on-site election officials, but each ballot would have to be tailored to each mailing address. Work that all have to be done on the front end. And depending on the precinct in which you live, you could have a lot of offices and positions to vote for. Think service area boards.

“Currently, if you’re in one of those precincts, you would go in, you would go in, locate your residence on a map and from that point, the election official can make a determination as to what ballot type you’re going to get. So we would have to do all that work in advance.”

The next step for all of this could involve the courts, Price says. He’s spoken with lawyers, one of whom works on behalf of ranked choice voting efforts, who tell him the Borough hasn’t got much of a case.

“They’re successfully using their office to subvert the rights of the people through the initiative process. The Borough Clerk’s office is where the buck stops and the only alternative we have is to go back to court with it,” Price said.

Blankenship says the Clerk’s office worked extensively with the Borough’s legal department to draw its conclusions on the ballot proposal.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-