After months vacant, the City of Soldotna’s seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission could be filled as soon as next week. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce is moving forward with Charlene Tautfest, who applied for the vacancy earlier this year.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission is responsible generally for the “systematic development and betterment” of the borough. The commission also has the approval and rejection authority over plots of land and can investigate public buildings or structures.
Tautfest’s appointment to the commission, if approved, would cap a 10-month process to fill the seat, which first became vacant last June. The Soldotna City Council has submitted the application of Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, who also serves on the Soldotna City Council, for consideration four times: first in June 2021 and most recently in mid-March.
Tautfest is the president of the Soldotna Rotary Club and has previously served on the Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission, according to her application for the seat. In that application, Tautfest describes herself as “dependable” and “a quick learner” who works “well under pressure.”
In addition to serving on the Soldotna City Council, Farnsworth-Hutchings has chaired the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and works as an accountant for Hutchings Auto Group. In a letter accompanying her application, Farnsworth-Hutchings said she has hands-on experience with “property sales, zoning, section lines, easements, proper roads, green areas and the protection of our anadromous stream set back on the spawning rivers and lakes within our City and Borough.”
Farnsworth-Hutchings’ initial recommendation kicked off a monthslong back-and-forth between the City of Soldotna and Pierce, and brought about legislative changes to the borough’s planning commission appointment process. Among other things, the assembly approved the addition of more seats to the body and said each of the borough’s first-class and home-rule cities will have designated seats on the body. Additionally, the assembly clarified that a “list” can be of only one name.
Soldotna City Council members first voted to recommend Farnsworth-Hutchings, who also ran against Pierce in the 2017 and 2020 mayoral races, after she was the only candidate to apply for the vacancy. Pierce pushed back and said the recommendation of one name doesn’t constitute a “list of recommendations” as required by state statute. He also suggested in subsequent months that insufficient advertising of the vacancy by the city could be behind the low applicant turnout.
Pierce wrote in a letter to Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney last year that he would “not be appointing” Farnsworth-Hutchings to the commission after the council recommended her for the second time. Pierce said he would give Soldotna’s seat to Seldovia if a list of more than one candidate was not forwarded. He accused the city of not seriously considering other applicants and has maintained it is ultimately his prerogative to decide who is appointed.
The borough was given the authority to also advertise for city seat vacancies as part of the changes approved by assembly members last December. After the borough advertised for the City of Soldotna’s vacancy, four applications were submitted, according to records obtained by the Clarion, including from Farnsworth-Hutchings and Tautfest. Other applicants included Whitney and Marvin St. Clair.
City council members most recently forwarded Farnsworth-Hutchings — along with Tautfest — to the borough for consideration in March. Confirmation of Tautfest to Soldotna’s seat on the borough planning commission is included on the assembly’s April 5 meeting agenda. Anyone Pierce picks to fill a vacancy is subject to approval by assembly members.
Farnsworth-Hutchings said Wednesday that she “was not surprised” to learn that Pierce was moving ahead with Tautfest. She said the only reason she applied for the vacancy to begin with was because no one else had applied and because she enjoys community service.
“I figured when we voted on the two names moving forward that it would be Charlene who was chosen,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said.
When asked if she felt Pierce’s decision not to appoint her to the commission was personal, Farnsworth-Hutchings said “it definitely was,” adding “(Pierce) made his choice.”
“It’s just what happens,” Farnsworth-Hutchings said. “That’s politics.”
Pierce declined to comment for this story. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly met on Tuesday, April 5 in Soldotna.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.