Election 2023: 1st round of assembly candidates tackle issues

Participating in Monday’s forum were Adam Bertoldo, Bill Elam, Peter Ribbens, Nissa Savage and Ryan Tunseth

Candidates for seats on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly gathered Monday in the Soldotna Public Library to talk about their bid for public office and issues facing borough voters as part of a candidate forum moderated by the Peninsula Clarion and KDLL 91.9 FM public radio.

The forum, hosted in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Soldotna Public Library, was the third of eight being held throughout September heading into the Oct. 3 municipal election.

Over the course of about an hour, candidates fielded questions from forum moderators Ashlyn O’Hara, the Peninsula Clarion’s government and education reporter, and Riley Board, a reporter at KDLL. Voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Kenai, Nikiski, Sterling and Homer legislative districts will cast ballots for a borough assembly candidate.

Whoever is elected to the assembly’s Kenai, Sterling and Homer seats will serve a three-year term, while the person elected to the Nikiski seat will serve a two-year term. That’s because they’ll be finishing out the term of Jesse Bjorkman, who was elected to the Alaska Legislature last fall while serving as Nikiski’s assembly representative.

Participating in Monday’s forum were Adam Bertoldo, Bill Elam, Peter Ribbens, Nissa Savage and Ryan Tunseth. Tunseth is running unopposed for election to the assembly’s Kenai seat. Elam and Savage are running for the Sterling seat. Bertoldo and Ribbens are running for the Nikiski seat.

A separate forum featuring candidates for the assembly’s Homer seat and Borough Mayor Peter Micciche, who is running unopposed for reelection, will be held Thursday in Homer.

Bertoldo is a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for six years and now works in contract. He said that, in deciding to run for a seat on the assembly, he is seeking to counter what he said is a “left-leaning tone” with a “strong conservative voice.”

Ribbens is the incumbent Nikiski candidate, appointed to the seat in January, with experience doing regulatory compliance in the oil and gas industry. He said he supports limiting government to only its essential services and that he has a track record of “convert(ing) ideas into actions.”

Elam is the incumbent Sterling representative, who said in the last three years he’s become the assembly’s liaison to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

Savage is a certified public account and shareholder with Savage Accounting, Inc. In running for a seat on the assembly, Savage said she wanted to increase her participation in local government and would bring a “different skill set” to the body.

Tunseth said that, in choosing to run for the assembly’s Kenai seat, he is not bringing a specific agenda, but rather a goal of making good decisions for residents of the Kenai district.

“It really wasn’t on my radar,” Tunseth said of politics. “I think I decided (to get involved in politics) because I was unhappy with the level of participation from people my age and younger. When you see that you have an election that’s going unfulfilled without a candidate and you think you can make a difference — if you don’t jump in, then maybe you’re a part of it, too.”

When it comes to borough funding for the school district, candidates said generally that they support education and funding education.

Elam said he supports responsible funding and called attention to the costs of deferred maintenance projects. Tunseth said he wants to learn more about the budget process but that schools should be funded such that they are positive places for kids to learn. Savage and Ribbens underscored the role the Alaska Legislature plays in securing funding for schools. Bertoldo said he doesn’t automatically support full funding because some parents don’t like what they see happening in public schools.

“To continue rewarding the school district when they never seem to have enough money with a $150 million budget and every year want more and more and more for results that aren’t impressive — I’m not going to be automatic yes on that,” Bertoldo said.

When asked what legislation they would want to sponsor if elected to the assembly, Ribbens said his work on gravel pits has shown him how important land use issues are to residents, while Savage said she didn’t have anything specific in mind. Bertoldo proposed a debt limit for the borough, while Tunseth floated the idea of building codes and a borough bed tax.

Elam said he’d like to clarify the roles of the borough and the school district relative to each other, which he said has become increasingly political in recent years and flexes depending on who is running the borough.

“Each time a new mayor comes in, that’s like getting a new CEO for your maintenance department,” Elam said. “So it’s all based on the whims of what is the season at that time. So if there’s some ways that we can address some of that through code, also, through the relationships between the borough and the school district, I think that would be of significant value to our community.”

Multiple candidates said borough elections are a topic that they’re interested in; Bertoldo said he wants to see local and state election days aligned, while Elam said he’ll be monitoring the recommendations of a borough working group recently created and tasked with identifying ways to boost turnout.

Savage and Ribbens emphasized the importance of an informed electorate, with Ribbens saying there needs to be a balance between making it easy for people to vote while ensuring elections are secure. Tunseth said he supports mail-in ballots and has a “high degree of trust” in the local election process.

“I’m a naive believer in education,” Ribbens said. “I would like to think that if we can get more people comfortable with the ordinances that we have, that we do have safe elections, we’ll modify ordinances so that if we identify things within an ordinance that causes people concern about the way elections are conducted, we’ll fix those sorts of things.”

Candidates put forth different strategies for making sure that they are taking into consideration perspectives from around the borough even though they would only be representing one district.

Tunseth said he’ll be tapping into a lifetime’s worth of local connections, while Ribbens said he tries to be deliberate about studying whether a particular issue is unique to a specific community or something that applies across the borough.

Bertoldo said he trusts people will be vocal about what topics are on their mind, while Elam said knowing who should have a say depends on the issue being considered. Savage emphasized the importance of hearing from multiple voices.

“I think being able to listen and interpret what people are saying is really important,” Savage said. “So spending the time hearing from the experts and affected parties, my neighbors, and my distant neighbors, is all that it takes. I mean, when you can take in the information, hear people’s perspectives, and then apply it. Hopefully, I’m able to do that in a way that produces fair results.”

During a bonus “lightning round,” candidates were given 30 seconds, rather than 90, to answer a question. The question, which was submitted by a member of the public, was about whether or not the candidates supported any local environmental programs.

Election Day is Oct. 3. Absentee in-person voting starts on Sept. 18. Monday’s full candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page or on KDLL’s website at kdll.org. The next forum will be held on Thursday, Sept. 14 at the Homer Public Library and will feature candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s Homer seat, as well as Borough Mayor Peter Micciche.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.