While 12 of the 19 boroughs around the state employ a manager to oversee day-to-day administrative operations, residents on the Kenai still go to the polls every three years to elect a mayor to serve in that role. But some on the assembly think it’s time for a change.
The idea of switching borough government to what’s called a strong manager from a strong mayor isn’t new. It’s been brought up a couple times, most recently in 2010. Hal Smalley was on the assembly then, and he’s also co-sponsoring the new ordinance that would put the question on the fall ballot for voters to decide.
“It really has nothing to do with who happens to be mayor at the time, it really doesn’t. You’re just looking at a different form of management style. I think it’s probably one that’s more effective. I think you have, generally, fewer employee-administrative issues. I’ve seen that in the city of Kenai over the years,” Smalley said.
That’s an opinion shared by the measure’s other co-sponsor, Kelly Cooper. She says she voted in favor of the change when it was last on the ballot in 2010, but she was in the minority. Just 30 percent of voters were in favor that year.
“This ordinance is something I have believed in for a very long time," Cooper said. "We have had mayors in this borough that were very qualified and we’ve had mayors that were not. So this is not an attack on this administration solely … . I continue to believe that someone who runs for mayor may be electable but they may not have the qualifications to be administrator.”
That sentiment was shared by then-assembly member Charlie Pierce back in 2010. In fact, he was a co-sponsor of that effort. Even now, Piece says there are a lot of good reasons to go with a manager form.
“It was evident to me at that time, and it still is today. I can’t speak against hiring a professional that is educated and trained and has some experience doing the administrative tasks that being the mayor requires," Pierce said. "Through the election process, you can elect your best friend or perhaps someone in the community who is well liked and yet may not have those experiences that one perhaps should have in order to be the mayor.”
However, he says his main argument against transitioning to a strong manager now is cost. A well- credentialed manager doesn’t come cheap and you’d still have the elected position of mayor that would be paid at the direction of the assembly.
“When you hire this professional, you’re going to pay probably $150,000 in wages and then you’re going to have benefits on top of that and that can run anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 a year, so you could be north of $200,000 for this position," Pierce said. "And as I understand it, (we) would continue to have a mayor in the mix, as well ... and the salary would be determined by the assembly but it could be somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, as well, because I don’t believe anybody’s going to spend a whole lot of time and dedicate the hours that it takes to run the borough without compensation. So really what you’re doing is you’re growing government.”
But Cooper says there are potential cost savings that don’t always show up on a line in a budget. Employee turnover as a result of a new, elected administration is real and happens after almost every election. Several long-term employees left the borough for various reasons after Pierce’s election, and there’s a value in the institutional knowledge they take with them, Cooper said. Some took severance packages, the financial details of which aren’t always made available. Most recently, the borough was tagged for $150,000 after Pierce was found to have fired the borough’s former human resources director with no cause.
“My goal is to have an efficient borough that provides the services we need, in the most fiscally responsible way, and have savings and not have decisions made at the administrative level that are political in nature or in the way we manage that borough or administer that borough with a political influence that may cause us to lose long-term employees that bring a lot of history and value to the borough," Cooper said. "It can affect our efficiencies and end up costing us more money based on the administration and what their agenda may be.”
The ordinance is up for introduction at the borough’s next meeting July 2. A public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 3.