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Special mayor's race takes shape as assembly sets February election date

Assembly chambers _ Poux
Sabine Poux
/
KDLL
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly unanimously approved a Feb. 14, 2023 special election date, with the potential for a March 7 runoff.

Voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough will choose a new mayor in a special election this Valentine's Day. Though, with multiple candidates already considering runs, it might be March before there’s a clear frontrunner for the borough’s top office.

That’s according to a timeline set this week by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for a special and runoff election to fill the remaining term of former Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce.

Pierce resigned as mayor at the end of last month — at the time, citing his Republican bid for Alaska governor. Pierce and the borough are now facing a lawsuit from a former employee over what she alleges was a constant pattern of sexual harassment.

Pierce’s term didn’t end until October 2023. And the assembly tapped Mike Navarre to be interim mayor until it could hold a special election to finish out that term. Navarre, who served as borough mayor twice before, has said he has no intention to run in a special election.

The borough has not started soliciting campaign paperwork for interested candidates, yet. Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship said they don’t have a date yet set on that.

But a handful of potential candidates are already considering bids — including Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche.

Micciche previously served as mayor of the City of Soldotna and was most recently the president of the Alaska Senate. He announced he wasn’t running for reelection last spring so he could spend more time with his family in Soldotna.

He said he wants to serve his community again, from home.

“The bottom line here is this borough needs some stability,” he said. “We have some drama that needs to go away. The borough is the purest form of local government and I think we need to get back to that.”

Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, who serves on the Soldotna City Council and is the accountant for Hutchings Auto Group, said she plans to run.

She said the borough needs a better style of management.

“I mean, we have lost so many good people,” she said. “And I’m hoping we’re able to get some of them back.”

Farnsworth-Hutchings ran against Pierce for the mayoral seat twice before.

“This is the right time to be running again,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said. “And I think we need some continuity, collaboration with our cities and our assembly members. And I just think I’m a good fit for that position.”

Margaret Gilman, of Kenai, said she’s considering a run, as well.

Gilman has represented Kenai on both the school board and borough assembly for three. Most recently, she was principal at Nikiski North Star Elementary.

“And I think the borough right now is in a healing period. It’s a time of tremendous change and I think it’s time for a local person to step forward and say, ‘Yes, I could do that,’” Gilman said.

James Baisden, a Kenai City Council member and Pierce’s former chief of staff, said he may put his hat in the ring. Before he was at the borough, Baisden was fire chief for the Nikiski Fire Department.

“I do have some interest, but I’m also interested in seeing if there’s someone I can support,” he said. “I may just step aside and play that part. But interested to see how it plays out.”

March runoff is likely

Assembly member Tyson Cox chairs the borough's finance committee, which took point on the special election ordinance.

He said, for voters, this election will feel like any other.

“Besides being in February and on the second Tuesday of the month, rather than the first Tuesday,” he added.

With more than two candidates running, Cox said it’s likely the borough would have to hold a runoff in March to determine a winner. Borough code requires a candidate to get 50% of the vote, plus one, to win.

“And typically, if you have three candidates, it’s going to be very difficult in just the regular election to have just one person have over 50%,” Cox said. “So the likelihood is very high that a runoff election would be required.”

That’s how Pierce secured his victory over then-candidate Farnsworth-Hutchings in the 2017 election — ultimately, he pulled ahead in a runoff by just 45 votes.

With a Feb. 14 special election, the borough would hold a March 7 runoff.

At the meeting Tuesday, Interim Mayor Navarre floated the idea that the borough assembly could change the threshold required to win, from 50% to 40%, to shorten that waiting period. The borough did not vote on whether to change that requirement.

The assembly also set aside money for the election Tuesday.

Together, the election and runoff could cost the borough $250,000 — about $125,000 for each. That money will come out of the borough’s general fund.

“The big cost would be, of course, printing the materials,” Cox said. “We have to print all the ballots. And the other costs is having workers there, and having people — not only for the election, but also when you have absentee ballots, you have people working before and after the election.”

Those are canvass workers, who are paid $25 an hour and count and certify absentee ballots that come into the borough.

A document included in the assembly packet Tuesday offered a cost comparison between an in-person and exclusively by-mail election — about $148,300 for an in-person election versus $206,000 for an entirely by-mail election, due mainly to differences in staff and supplies required. But the borough assembly did not consider the latter option in its ordinance.

Besides a handful of comments from the public, the lawsuit against Pierce did not come up at the assembly’s meeting Tuesday.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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