Sweeping changes to how people are appointed to the borough’s planning commission were unanimously approved by the borough assembly during an hourslong meeting on Tuesday.
The changes, spearheaded by assembly members Tyson Cox and Lane Chesley, come after months of contention over the process for approving new members to the commission, which is responsible generally for planning the “systematic development and betterment” of the borough and has approval and rejection authority over plots of land.
Under the ordinance as amended, commission membership was bumped up to 14 from 11, with designated seats for first-class and home-rule cities and single-member districts for the rest of the borough. Also, the borough will be allowed to advertise for commission vacancies independent of cities and a “list of recommendations” as described by state statute is clearly defined.
Under the borough’s current appointment structure, the commission has 11 members, with five of the borough’s incorporated cities — Soldotna, Kenai, Seward, Seldovia and Homer — rotating among four seats. The other members hold at-large seats.
Currently, cities advertise for their vacant seat on the commission, with applications forwarded to the council for review. The council then compiles a list of recommendations to forward to the borough mayor, who then forwards his candidate of choice to the assembly for approval.
Among other things, the legislation approved by the assembly Tuesday bumps the total number of commission members up from 11 to 14, five of which are reserved for the borough’s first-class and home-rule cities. Cities will only be allowed to be represented by residents of that city on the commission, with the other nine seats mirroring the assembly’s geographic single-member district makeup.
Single-member seats will include: District 1-Kalifornsky, District 2-Kenai, District 3-Nikiski, District 4-Soldotna, District 5-Sterling/Funny River, District 6-East Peninsula, District 7-Central, District 8-Homer and District 9-South Peninsula.
Those serving in the commission’s single-member seats must reside within the district they’re seeking to represent. If nobody from the district applies, the seat can be filled by a qualified resident of the borough who lives outside city limits. In the case of Kenai’s assembly district, which sits entirely within city limits, the single-member seat will be made available to anyone in the borough.
The changes approved Tuesday will not affect current commissioners and will only apply to those commissioners whose terms begin after Jan, 1, 2022.
City managers from Kenai, Soldotna and Seldovia, Homer Mayor Ken Castner, Homer City Council member Donna Aderhold, Kenai City Council member Jim Glendening and Soldotna City Council member Justin Ruffridge testified in support of the legislation, but against some the four proposed amendments.
For example, one amendment, proposed by assembly member Bill Elam and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, would have prohibited current city council members and mayors from also serving on the borough planning commission.
Castner said he struggles to find people interested in serving.
“I actively have to go out and twist arms and encourage people that they would be well enough suited,” Castner said. “ … I actually spend more time than I ever thought that I would in recruiting and cajoling and in all to find people that are willing to take the time to do a good job.”
Pierce, however, suggested inconsistent advertising of vacancies may be behind why so few people apply. Insufficient notice of commission vacancies, he said, discriminates against borough residents who are interested in serving on the commission but aren’t reached by advertising.
“I think the cities have traditionally had a practice of appointing their internal elected officials,” Pierce told the Clarion on Wednesday.
Another point of contention resolved in Tuesday’s legislation was what constitutes a “list.”
Pierce has maintained in ongoing talks with Soldotna that their submission of one name does not qualify as a “list of recommendations” as described by state statute.
The Soldotna City Council has voted three times to recommend that city council member Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings fill the city’s seat on the borough planning commission, first on June 9, again on Aug. 28 and most recently on Nov. 10.
Farnsworth-Hutchings, who also ran against Pierce in the 2017 and 2020 borough mayoral races, was the only candidate to apply for the seat when the vacancy was advertised the first time. Three applications were received after the borough advertised the vacancy, which included Farnsworth-Hutchings. After the city advertised the vacancy a second time, two people applied: Farnsworth-Hutchings and Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney.
Per the legislation approved Tuesday, Kenai Peninsula Borough code now defines a list to be “at least one applicant from the respective city whose city seat is vacant or expiring.” The assembly also approved an amendment saying that the borough can advertise for vacancies on the commission, in addition to any advertising done by cities.
Pierce said Wednesday that while he reviews the resumes and qualifications of whoever the city recommends, he doesn’t think serious consideration was given to the three applications forwarded to Soldotna by the borough. He said he wants to see Soldotna advertise for the vacancy again and reiterated his previous assertions that it is ultimately his prerogative to decide to appoint an applicant or not.
Candidates appointed by Pierce are subject to confirmation by the assembly. The assembly’s Tuesday meeting can be viewed in full on the borough’s website at kpb.us.