Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:08 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Elected vs. appointed

Proposal before assembly would change how service area seats positions are filled

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

Changing service area board seats from elected to appointed positions is the goal of Ordinance 2012-07, sponsored by Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly member Linda Murphy of Soldotna. The ordinance is scheduled for public hearings at the assembly's meetings in Soldotna on April 3 and April 17.

Passage of the ordinance would mean individuals interested in serving on the borough's 13 service area boards will apply, the borough mayor will make appointments and the assembly will make confirmations, a process similar to the current process when no one files as a candidate for a board opening.

The reason for the change, according to Murphy, a former borough clerk who was elected to the assembly in 2010, is to "save money and time, reduce voter confusion during the election process and encourage public participation in serving on service area boards."

Boundaries for assembly districts, service areas and voting precincts aren't identical, which means some areas have three, four, even five ballots in an election.

"It's really confusing for election workers at the polls, as well as the canvass board afterward," said Murphy. "When the canvass board reviews question ballots, they have to find the map, find the address, determine which ballots they should have. It's a very cumbersome process. Last year we had 20 different ballot types. If we'd had no service area board seats, we'd have had nine ballot types."

Since 2001, 282 service area board seats have been on the ballot according to information provided by the borough. The majority — 201, or 71 percent — were unopposed races. During that same period, 54 board members were appointed.

"Currently, each year before the election, the borough clerk advertises the positions to be filled throughout the borough. If people want to file for service area board seats, they get a candidate filing form, fill it out, file it with the borough clerk, do a short bio that goes on the website, the clerk orders the ballots, and the (candidate) goes through the election process," said Murphy.

Passage of the ordinance won't change qualifications to serve on a service area board. Candidates will still be required to be residents, registered voters and to have lived in the service area for at least six months.

"The clerk will advertise the seats available for appointment, she will make the forms available to apply for the seat, the completed forms will be delivered to the clerk's office, the clerk will vet them to make sure the person is really qualified and then qualified applications will be sent to the mayor's office. The mayor will do his review and then come forward with his appointments and the assembly confirms or doesn't confirm them," said Murphy.

New to the process will be consideration given to applicants with a demonstrated knowledge of service area functions, as well as financial and budgetary management capabilities.

"Not having it doesn't preclude you from being appointed, but if two apply, the one with the experience will probably be weighed higher," said Murphy.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough is the only one in the state to elect service area board seats, according to Murphy.

"Everyone else appoints them," she said.

In terms of cost-savings, Murphy said printing nine rather than 20 ballots would be "significantly cheaper."

"The code requires that the voter pamphlet have a copy of each ballot in it, Also, if there are split precincts, you have to have colored maps so people know what ballot to be looking at," said Murphy. "It's costly to produce at the borough and to print."

Since sponsoring the ordinance, Murphy has met with five service area boards and received mixed reactions. She teleconferenced with the Seldovia Recreational Service Area for its March 22 meeting.

"The SRSA board felt that in a small community like Seldovia it is difficult enough to fill seats on boards and committees. Therefore, we believe it would be to our advantage to make it as easy a process for persons interested in sitting on the SRSA board," Vivian Rojas, board chair, wrote in an email to the Homer News. "We want applicants to not feel overwhelmed by the process and hinder them from volunteering their time. We also feel the cost factor to the borough is unnecessary for our situation and many others. These were some of our considerations in voting unanimously in favor of the ordinance."

That same level of support was not found in the Nikiski Fire Service Area.

"They felt it took away the right of people to vote for people who represent us," said Murphy. "One member stated that as an elected person, he was answerable to those that voted for him, but as an appointed person he was only answerable to the mayor and he felt that it took away from the seriousness of what he was doing."

Murphy is scheduled to meet with the South Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board at its April 12 meeting. Speaking for herself and not the board, chair Judith Lund said she opposed the ordinance, "but I'm willing to hear what (Murphy) has to say. I think I know what the argument will be and I certainly understand some seats tend to stay unfilled because people don't understand what services areas are, but I'm not sure this approach will solve the problem."

Of 70 elected service area board seats in the borough, four are currently vacant. One of them is on the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service Area Board. Board chair Robin Proctor said Murphy and Johni Blankenship, the borough clerk, were due to meet with the board to discuss the ordinance at this week's board meeting.

"At that time we'll make a decision whether we agree with it or don't," said Proctor.

As much as she would like to get buy-in by the service area board members, Murphy said passage of the ordinance is an assembly decision.

"Title 29 gives the assembly authority of whether boards are elected or appointed," she said.

Mako Haggerty, who represents the southern peninsula on the assembly, and Bill Smith, who represents the city of Homer on the assembly, favor the ordinance.

"It cuts down on the workload and there's a little bit of savings," said Haggerty. "A lot of times, it's a hassle to get anyone to run for election."

"If we had a lot of contested elections and a high interest in a service area board, it would be a different deal, but we just don't," said Smith. "I know people default to wanting to have as much of a democratic process as possible, but even the most important boards — the road service area board and the planning commission — are appointed."

Service area board meetings are open to the public, with the public given opportunities to comment, said Lund.

To read Ordinance 2012-07 and other ordinances online, visit www2.borough.kenai.ak.us/AssemblyClerk/default.htm.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.