Standoff over planning commission appointment continues

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he will not appoint Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings to the commission.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said he will let Seldovia fill a vacancy on the borough planning commission intended for Soldotna if the city does not provide a list of recommended candidates for that vacancy by Dec. 1. That’s according to a Sept. 10 letter from Pierce to Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney, which was obtained by the Clarion via records request.

The ultimatum comes amid a monthslong clash between the City of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough over whether or not one name can be considered a “list of recommendations” as described by the section of Alaska statute describing membership apportionment on the borough’s planning commission. Pierce says that the city’s submission of a single name does not constitute a list, while the city says it is consistent with past practice.

The borough’s planning commission is responsible generally for planning the “systematic development and betterment” of the borough. Among other things, the planning commission has approval and rejection authority over plots of land and can investigate public buildings or structures.

Current borough statute says that representatives from five of the borough’s incorporated communities — Kenai, Soldotna, Homer, Seward and Seldovia — are given seats on the 11-member commission. Representatives from those communities rotate among four seats on the commission, with Soldotna next up in the rotation.

The other seven seats are at-large seats, representing Anchor Point/Ninilchik, Northwest Borough, Sterling, Ridgeway, Kalifornsky Beach, East Peninsula and Kasilof/Clam Gulch.

Currently, cities advertise for their vacant seat on the commission, with applications forwarded to the city 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.

The Soldotna City Council has already voted twice to recommend that city council member Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings fill the city’s seat on the borough planning commission, first on June 9 and again on Aug. 28 after Pierce had the borough advertise for the vacancy again.

The Soldotna City Council will consider for a third time whether or not to recommend Farnsworth-Hutchings for Soldotna’s seat on the borough planning commission during their Nov. 10 meeting, but this time she won’t be the only name on the list. Whitney has also thrown his hat in the ring.

The City of Soldotna advertised the vacancy for a second time, according to a memo from Soldotna Vice Mayor Lisa Parker to the council, after Pierce wrote in the Sept. 10 letter to Whitney that he will not appoint Farnsworth-Hutchings to the commission. Pierce went on in that letter to criticize Soldotna’s “apparent unwillingness to follow the law” and reiterate his stance that one name is not a “list of recommendations.”

“It appears that the City of Soldotna was unwilling to even consider the applications of the two other qualified applicants for the vacancy on the borough’s planning commission,” Pierce wrote in that letter. “Given this apparent unwillingness to follow the law, I will not be appointing Ms. Linda Hutchings to the borough’s planning commission.”

Farnsworth-Hutchings, who 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 Whitney.

Through it all, Pierce has maintained that it is ultimately his prerogative to choose who he wants to put before the assembly.

“Your letter suggests that the intent of (state statute) is that the borough mayor must appoint the single candidate recommended by a city council,” Pierce wrote in the Sept. 10 letter. “I disagree. Under the law, appointment authority is vested with the borough mayor.”

Pierce also set a Dec. 1 deadline in his letter for the City of Soldotna to submit a “list of recommendations” and said if the city does not provide a list by that date, the borough will allow the City of Seldovia to fill that vacancy instead.

“In good faith, based on an informal rotation of city seats which is not a codified process or formal borough policy, the City of Soldotna was given the first opportunity to fill the current vacancy,” Pierce wrote. “In good faith, that opportunity will remain in the hands of the City of Soldotna until December 1, 2021 … If a list of recommendations is not received on or before December 1, then the City of Seldovia will be afforded the opportunity to fill the vacancy.”

When asked Friday whether he had specific concerns about Farnsworth-Hutchings as a candidate for the commission, Pierce declined to comment and said his letter to Whitney speaks for itself.

Amid the tumult, two assembly members are trying to prevent similar arguments from holding up commission appointments in the future.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members Tyson Cox and Lane Chesley are the sponsors of legislation that would clarify borough code to say that a list of recommendations must include at least one applicant from their respective city.

“Over the past several years most cities have only submitted one applicant for their designated planning commission seat, as neither borough code nor state statutes designate the specific number of applicants required to be considered a list,” Cox and Chesley wrote in an Oct. 14 memo to the assembly. “Several KPB Mayors have accepted lists with only one city seat applicant, including our current KPB Mayor.”

That memo goes on to say that one applicant is the best way to define a list because few people apply to fill vacancies on the commission.

“This ordinance would specify that the list of recommendations given to the borough mayor as approved by the city council would consist of at least one applicant from the respective city,” the memo says. “In this case one applicant seems the best definition for a list because we often have very few people who choose to apply to serve as a commissioner.”

If the assembly amended the legislation to require two or more recommendations, the memo says, a separate process would be needed to clarify what would happen if a city only had one willing applicant.

The same legislation would also bump up borough planning commission membership from 11 to 13, which Cox and Chesley wrote would allow each of the five cities to always have a representative on the body and therefore eliminate the borough’s “rotation dilemma” by solving arguments between the borough and cities about who will sit out.

Cox said during testimony provided to the Kenai City Council that his goal in sponsoring the legislation is to prevent the same conversations that have held the appointment up this year from happening in the future. The Kenai City Council unanimously passed legislation supporting Cox and Chesley’s ordinance on Wednesday. The City of Seldovia has passed similar legislation, which will also be considered by Soldotna and Homer at upcoming council meetings.

“My goal with this was to not create in our own borough a situation, where we are repeating the same conversation every year and not getting anywhere,” Cox told the city council. “Let’s make some solutions. Whether (they’re) exactly what’s on here, or something close to it, at least we’ll have some of these things defined and we won’t have to do this again next year.”

That legislation will be up for a public hearing and vote by the borough assembly during the body’s Dec. 7 meeting.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at