The last time Charlie Pierce and Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings campaigned for the position of Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor, in 2017, voters were buzzing about the borough’s stance on cannabis legislation and the Pebble Partnership.
The center of attention this round, unsurprisingly, has been COVID-19. At today’s 2020 mayoral candidate forum, moderator Merrill Sikorski asked the candidates about their strategies for handling coronavirus and what they thought about funding for schools and deferred maintenance projects.
The forum was part of a luncheon held by the Kenai Chamber of Commerce at the visitors’ center. Around 50 people attended.
Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce was an early proponent of opening Kenai back up following state-mandated coronavirus closures, and he spoke proudly of his position at the forum.
“I was the individual that took the lead in Marchm” Pierce said. “Following the very next day, after the governor reduced some of his mandates, I was out on the streets the very next day saying that I believe we’re all essential. I believe we’re open for business and I believe that’s the best way to save our businesses is to continue to keep government out and off of the backs of individuals in the way of taxation and the growth of government.”
Generally, Pierce said he thinks he’s done a pretty good job over the last three years. But when asked about what she would have done differently, Farnsworth-Hutchings said she would have handled borough issues “in a completely different way” than her opponent.
“I work very well one on one with everybody,” she said. “I believe in having management meetings once a week so that you can deal with all of your department heads, [seeing] what’s going on in their departments, and making sure that your employees feel like they are appreciated and are doing the most that they can do.”
When asked about their opinions on a potential borough COVID-19 vaccination policy, Pierce said the borough was “planning for the arrival of a vaccine.” Farnsworth-Hutchings said the decision to take a vaccine should be up to individuals, since the borough technically has no healthcare powers.
“Choice” was also a word used to discuss the borough’s Proposition 2, which would repeal an assembly ordinance instituting a borough-wide vote-by-mail system.
"I think it is up to the people to decide; it’s on the ballot, and that’s where it needs to be. But I do want to make one comment in addition to that. It’s amazing to me that we’re having all of this conversation about something that’s sitting on the borough website, saying it’s safe, and we’ve been doing it for 20 years,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said.
She added that the borough already has six precincts that abide by a mail-in system.
Pierce, on the other hand, was insistent that he did not approve of making vote-by-mail mandatory across the borough.
The candidates also had the chance to describe what they saw as the role of the borough mayor, to which they had differing responses. The assembly has discussed moving to a hired borough manager to run day-to-day operations of the borough, rather than a mayor.
“I’ve had fun being mayor. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been your voice. You elected me to be your voice,” Pierce said. “You know, they’ve tried to take it out of a strong mayor concept and create a manager form of government, and if I could be a critic for a moment to the cities, I think that’s what’s wrong with our cities, is that you have a manager form of government in your cities, and if you had a strong mayor in each one of your cities, you might see different results, as well.”
In his closing statements, he added that he abides by the idiom: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Farnsworth-Hutchings, whose parents sat on the first iteration of the borough assembly back when it was founded, advocated a stronger role for the borough assembly.
“I think that you should be able to collaborate with your assembly. I think that there should be good discussions. And I don’t seem to feel the same way that the borough mayor is the only voice,” she said. “There are nine assembly members. They all have a voice. So there are 10 people that are speaking for you. And I think that that’s a good way to do it.”
Troy Nightengale, of Soldotna, is also running in the mayor’s race. He attended Nikiski High School and the Alaska State Troopers Citizens Academy. The works at Safeway as a courtesy clerk and participated in the Key Coalition of Alaska, which advocates for people with disabilities.