The four candidates vying to become the next mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough swapped views on peninsula issues during a forum held at the Soldotna Public Library on Jan. 24. Candidates Dave Carey, Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, Zach Hamilton and Peter Micciche all attended the event.
The forum was hosted by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters. Over the course of roughly an hour, candidates fielded questions from moderators Sabine Poux, news director at KDLL, and Ashlyn O’Hara, government and education reporter at the Clarion.
The four candidates are running for an abbreviated term as borough mayor that was necessitated following the resignation of former Mayor Charlie Pierce amid allegations of harassment. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly appointed former Mayor Mike Navarre as interim mayor, and he’ll step down following the Feb. 14 special election. Whoever is elected will serve until the next municipal election in October.
Borough code requires borough mayors to be elected with a majority of votes cast. If no candidate receives the majority of votes, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff election. Per the special election schedule, election certification is scheduled for Feb. 21, followed by a runoff election, if needed, on March 7.
The candidates include current and former elected officials as well as local business owners, and all come from the central Kenai Peninsula.
Carey sits on the Soldotna City Council and is a former teacher for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and has a history of serving in local government. He served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly from 1982 to 1989, as mayor of the City of Soldotna from 2001 to 2008 and as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough from 2008 to 2011.
Farnsworth-Hutchings also sits on the Soldotna City Council. The daughter of Soldotna homesteaders, she owns Hutchings Auto Spa with her husband and has served on the Alaska Workers Comp Board, the State of Alaska Board of Nursing and the Soldotna Parks & Recreation Advisory Board.
Hamilton co-owns and operates Brothers’ Café, located inside the Kenai Municipal Airport. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Hamilton has lived in the Kenai Peninsula Borough with his family since 2020.
Micciche represented the central peninsula in the Alaska Legislature for 10 years, most recently as Senate president, and has also served on the Soldotna City Council and as the mayor of Soldotna.
Both Hamilton and Micciche said being borough mayor is akin to being the CEO of a company, while Farnsworth-Hutchings and Carey emphasized the importance of the borough mayor as a collaborator and leader for residents.
All candidates agreed the borough should provide the maximum amount of funding allowed to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which announced earlier this month that it is facing a $13.1 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. The district said it plans to partially offset the deficit with one-time COVID relief funds.
“That’s not even a discussion we should have,” Micciche said on the issue of whether or not fund to the cap. “We’re going to fund the cap. That’s just the bottom line. However, we also have to lean on our legislators.”
Most candidates said they’re not concerned about revenue the borough may be losing out on as the number of peninsula residents that qualify for senior property tax exemptions increases. Carey called it “offensive” to question the value seniors provide and Micciche said revenue should be pursued as part of economic growth rather than focusing on “the most vulnerable source.”
Hamilton had a different take, saying that while it is not his top priority to change the borough’s senior property tax exemption, seniors also benefit from the services funded by borough property tax revenue, like emergency medical services.
“The reality is, is that there is potentially a lot of revenue that’s not being captured because of this exemption, or these exemptions,” Hamilton said. “I do think that it is probably important to, as times change and the needs of our rural communities continue to increase during uncertain and changing times, that everything’s on the table.”
Mayoral candidates were asked whether or not they would address harassment reporting gaps within the borough, such as those described in the lawsuit against Pierce and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and whether or not they agreed with the way the borough shared information about that case.
Farnsworth-Hutchings said the borough shared information about the case that it was legally able to and said she has experience handling allegations of harassment from within her own company.
“We had a four-person panel … and anytime there was ever a thought that somebody was being harassed, whether they didn’t like the job that was being done, or whether they thought they were being asked to do something they shouldn’t, that panel was there, those items were discussed,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said. “I think that was what was missing at the borough.”
When asked where they would like to see the borough be five years from now, candidates offered various visions. Hamilton wants to see borough communities become more interdependent, Micciche called for a collaborative plan for boroughwide growth, Carey said more attention should be paid to the peninsula’s homeless population and Farnsworth-Hutchings called for continued collaboration to propel the borough forward.
Election Day is Feb. 14 and absentee voting begins on Jan. 30. A special runoff election, if needed, will be held on March 7. The forum can be streamed in its entirety on the Peninsula Clarion Facebook page and on KDLL 91.9 FM’s website at kdll.org.