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Changes to planning commission address appointment dispute

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission will have an additional three members. And now, those members will have to live in the cities and borough districts they represent.

That’s after an ordinance passed through the borough assembly Tuesday night, restructuring the commission and clarifying language about the appointment process. 

Assembly Member Jesse Bjorkman said the change to 14 commissioners makes the body more representative. Representation was the reason the assembly changed the number of seats from 13 to 11 back in 2016.

Now, there will be five seats for cities and nine for the borough’s unincorporated communities. Before Tuesday, the borough’s five cities split four seats and rotated who was left off each term.

“My proposal here moves representation much closer to what the prescribed level is in state law," Bjorkman said. "And it designates seats on the planning commission for all areas of the borough."

The discussion comes amid a squabble between the borough administration and cities over who gets to lead the appointment process for the body that oversees matters of land use and planning in the borough. 

The ordinance to add more members to the council and set a residency requirement was intended to clarify points of disagreement between the bodies. The original ordinance, sponsored by Assembly Members Lane Chesley and Tyson Cox, brought the number of commissioners up to 13. Bjorkman’s amendment added another and realigned seats with borough districts.

On Tuesday, the ordinance drew hours of testimony and discussion. City representatives said they should get more oversight over how their seats are filled. Mayor Charlie Pierce said the application and appointment process should be standardized at the borough level, since it’s a borough commission.

“You don’t have executive powers, I do," he said. "I was elected into that role. You can’t take those away from me.”

Pierce and the cities have been at odds over the commission since this summer, when a seat on the body opened up for Soldotna. The city forwarded one name to the borough to fill it — Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, a member of the Soldotna City Council who ran against Pierce for borough mayor twice.

Pierce refused to appoint Farnsworth-Hutchings and told Soldotna he should be able to pick from a list of multiple names, not just one. The city, in return, said the mayor couldn’t just refuse to appoint a recommended commissioner if he wasn’t happy with the choice. Soldotna later added Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney’s name to the mix, too.

In a proposed amendment Tuesday, Pierce suggested making it impossible to appoint city council members and mayors to the commission. He said that would open the public process up to more residents.

“What I’m trying to point out to you is they’re really discriminating against the rights of the individuals of this borough to apply for these seats because they’re going to appoint their own person anyway," Pierce said. "So what’s the point of even getting into the advertisement exercise for? Why are we doing that?”

The amendment was unpopular among several city representatives who came out to testify. Ultimately, it failed.

The assembly also sided with the cities on what constitutes a list. The ordinance said a list can be just one name.

City representatives said that’s important, since they don’t always get much interest in planning commission seats. That was the case for a recent vacancy.

“The borough did their advertising process for the city of Seward," said Assembly Member Lane Chesley. "And we have none, we have zero candidates to fill Seward’s seat.”

The assembly agreed Tuesday that if it does not get candidates that fulfill the new residency requirements, it will expand seat eligibility to other residents of the borough.

A second amendment from Pierce and Assembly Member Bill Elam did narrowly pass, centralizing the commission’s application process so that all advertising and applications first go through the borough.

Before, candidates applied directly to cities and those cities sent their recommendations to the borough for approval. Now, the borough will advertise the open seats and round up applications before the cities come up with their lists.

Pierce said that’s because the application process is disjointed across cities. Every city advertises for seats differently.

But Homer Mayor Ken Castner said he didn’t find Pierce’s amendments “friendly.” He said the short lists of names cities send to the borough is not for lack of trying.

“I don’t know how far you would like us to go as far as getting the word out," Castner said. "But we have a hard enough time getting the word out about council.”

Those already on the planning commission are grandfathered in after the changes. But new members will have to represent the nine communities outlined in the ordinance, which line up with assembly districts.

That’s already muddied the waters for one commission candidate, who was set to be appointed to the northwest borough seat Tuesday. He was not from that part of the peninsula, and therefore could not be appointed. The assembly said it will try to find another place for him on the commission.

The changes made Tuesday also make it clear that Soldotna’s list of recommended candidates is a valid one. As of Wednesday, Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said she had not yet heard from borough administration about whether it would appoint Farnsworth-Hutchings or Whitney to the seat.

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