Mike Navarre will be the next person to take the helm of the Kenai Peninsula Borough following a 7-2 vote by assembly members Tuesday appointing him as the borough’s interim mayor. Navarre will take over from sitting Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, who resigned on Aug. 26.
The proposal to appoint Navarre to the interim position came from assembly member Tyson Cox, who represents Soldotna. It is the first formal recommendation from an assembly member suggesting an interim mayoral candidate since Pierce resigned.
Cox said in a memo that Navarre would allow for a seamless transition of power given his familiarity and experience with the position.
Navarre served as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough from 1996 to 1999 and from 2011 to 2017. He is a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives and served as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce under former Gov. Bill Walker.
“With the resignation of Mayor Charlie Pierce, appointing Mike Navarre as Interim Mayor is a logical solution to our current dilemma,” Cox wrote. “He is one of very few number of people who can ‘hit the road running’ as Mayor with as minimal of a learning curve as could be asked for in such a position.”
Cox’s motion to appoint Navarre came less than two weeks after outgoing Mayor Charlie Pierce tendered his resignation, effective Sept. 30, with the borough. Pierce cited a desire to focus “full time” on his 2022 gubernatorial bid when announcing that he would be stepping down as mayor.
Pierce formally appointed last year his chief of staff, Aaron Rhoades, as his designated administrative officer. That means Rhoades would take over if Pierce is unable to exercise his duties. Because Rhoades is set to depart the borough on the same day as Pierce, Borough Finance Director Brandi Harbaugh would be next in line to serve. Harbaugh would only take over if the assembly had failed to appoint an interim mayor by Sept. 30.
During a Tuesday meeting of the assembly’s Policies & Procedures Committee, however, assembly members were split on whether or not they should solicit applications for the position before appointing an interim mayor. Some felt the brevity of the interim mayor’s term justified an assembly appointment, while others said the borough should open a formal application process for the interim position.
Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship was asked what work would be needed by borough clerks to set up an application process that produced an interim mayor by Oct. 1. The work, Blankenship said, would include publishing a legal notice, writing an application and then reviewing applications — all of which would need to happen before the assembly’s next meeting on Sept. 20.
Navarre said Monday that he thinks he is a “reasonably good choice” for a short-term, interim mayoral position. He got calls after Pierce’s resignation came in, he said, from people asking if he’d consider stepping in. His prior experience serving as borough mayor and his opposition to running for the position in a special or regular election, Navarre said, had him leaning toward yes.
“I thought about it and said, yeah, I’d be willing,” Navarre said.
Navarre said he would not be bringing any policy initiatives to the interim position, which he views as a “caretaker” role. As the borough begins to prepare work on its Fiscal Year 2024 budget, Navarre said he’d bring familiarity with what he called a “big process.” Moreover, having someone other than Harbaugh at the helm would prevent her from doing both the job of mayor and the job of finance director throughout the budget process, he said.
“In my opinion, it wouldn’t really be fair to try and have Brandi doing both positions,” Navarre said.
While he is willing to serve, Navarre said that the decision on how to move forward with the mayoral vacancy is ultimately the assembly’s prerogative. When asked Tuesday whether he would be willing to serve in the interim position through the bulk of the borough’s budget process, Navarre said yes. He added that he would be willing to stay on — at no cost to the borough — for two more weeks to help show the next mayor the ropes.
“It’s a very steep learning curve,” Navarre said. “At least, it was for me.”
Tuesday’s assembly meeting was also the last Pierce will attend as borough mayor, according to a post shared by the “Charlie Pierce for Governor” Facebook page. There is an assembly meeting scheduled for Sept. 20, though Pierce said Tuesday he will not be attending that meeting.
Pierce described Navarre during Tuesday’s assembly meeting as “very qualified” but said he supports an equitable process and questioned whether any other former borough mayors were consulted.
“You’re not going to find a more qualified individual,” Pierce said of Navarre.
Tuesday’s full meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.com.