Homer Alaska - Elections

Story last updated at 4:52 PM on Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Debate shows differences between mayoral candidates

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Homer City Council Candidates listen to Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Monte Davis explain the procedure for a debate last Tuesday at the Kachemak Community Center. From left to right are Francie Roberts, James Dolma and Beau Burgess.

Before an audience of about a dozen people, differences between city of Homer mayoral candidates Mary E. "Beth" Wythe and Bryan Zak were evident at Tuesday's debate sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.

Prior to the debate, the candidates, each current city council members, were provided the set of six questions.

"We want them to give thoughtful answers, rather than be fast on their feet," said Debbie Speakman, the chamber's membership services manager.

The debate's format allowed Wythe and Zak a three-minute introductory statement, a two-minute answer to each question with an additional minute for rebuttal or response and a three-minute final statement. Aaron Selbig, KBBI news director, moderated.

Zak acknowledged Homer's new mayor would have "real big shoes to fill," referring to eight-year Mayor James Hornaday who could "bring people together over tough issues."

"That's where maybe I have something to learn, but yet I also feel it is so important in these times to speak out," said Zak, referring specifically to issues with economic impact. "I'm one of those willing to stand up there and take a hit or two."

As an example, he used his support of the ban on recyclable plastic bags and reactions he has received from those opposing and agreeing with his stand.

Wythe noted her role improving the city's financial situation.

"We've been able to bring the city's reserve account up to the established governmental standard, enough that if you have a catastrophic event or economic hardship, you can continue operating in the span of time it takes to acquire federal or other funding," said Wythe.

While serving on the council, Wythe said the city's overall budget was reduced by $3 million, taxes were reduced and Exxon Valdez money was used to initiate the city's permanent fund. Homer's economic development commission has been reactivated and Wythe served as council liaison on the commission. She said she looks "for ways the city can take responsibility for its own destiny" rather than relying on outside sources.

Asked to define the mayor's role and explain why they were seeking that office rather than remaining on the council, Zak said traditionally the mayor represents the citizens, runs meetings effectively and has the power to veto council actions. He is interested in serving as mayor because of the opportunity to represent Homer on issues important to the city.

"One thing I've noticed about my opponent is that she's very good about fiscal responsibility," said Zak. "Alternatively I'm saying there are other ways to improve the economy: bringing in the natural gas line, finding ways to pump more money into the economy, spending a little bit to get the economy going, working with the stakeholders."

Wythe said the mayor's primary function is representing Homer at the local, state and federal level.

"There are people who feel like they cannot come to the council and represent their position. That's problematic to me. .... That's the most important thing, to provide everyone with an opportunity to be represented," said Wythe.

Using recent sign code changes and the ban on certain plastic bags as examples, candidates were asked how to ensure business owners knew of possible code changes so they could offer timely input. Wythe pointed out council meeting agendas are posted by the city, run in newspapers, announced on the radio and can be accessed online.

"If that still is not providing a venue where businesses can access (the information) adequately, we need to ... find out how they want to receive that information," said Wythe. "We need to find ways to get more people involved so you don't get calls after the fact when you've had (an item) on the agenda for six weeks."

Wythe also said the ban on the bags involved more than being or not being friendly to businesses. It was about making regulations "just because you can. To me, you don't regulate people's morals or ethics," said Wythe.

Zak pointed out some businesses felt the council's actions regarding plastic bags would improve business.

"We're setting a precedent and I think we need to do more of this," said Zak. "The plastic bag ban is a small step in the right direction."

However, with regard to the sign ordinance, Zak said he didn't like to see the city in an enforcement role.

"Let's find a way to do it better," he said.

Asked what the city should do with the HERC, Homer Educational Recreation Complex, Zak described it as an "incredible opportunity" and favored turning it into a community center. He anticipated bringing natural gas to Homer would lower energy costs for the building, resulting in a "perfect storm, everything aligning to make that thing a golden opportunity for our community."

Wythe said the building was costly to operate and maintain. Before it could be used, it had to be "brought up to code." What that means is uncertain, so Wythe has requested $15,000 to have "someone tell us what it means to come up to code. ... We have to first find out and then decide if there's a continued use or if razing the building would be a better use."

Next came a question about the best way to build out a natural gas network in Homer. This is a subject on which Wythe is mum during council meetings since her employment with Homer Electric Association has been determined a conflict of interest.

"I believe the city's role is to be directed by residents. At this point, the council is doing the best it can for residents, but residents need to start weighing in, need to become active," said Wythe.

The anticipated cost to bring natural gas to the city is being discussed, but Wythe said until those costs are clear, the city and residents need to proceed with caution.

Recognizing the need to look at contracts and weight public input, Zak said building out the natural gas line as a city-wide project instead of a piece at a time would keep project costs down.

"We need to get it done, need to go at it full speed ahead," said Zak.

If money were no object, which did Wythe and Zak prefer: roundabouts, stop lights, stop signs or no traffic control at major Homer intersections?

"For me, the answer is easy," said Zak, referring to suggestions offered for right-turn lanes, one-way streets and four-way stops. "When you look at the millions of dollars it'll cost for a stoplight or roundabout, let's try something that doesn't cost money."

Wythe said Homer presents itself as a walk able environment, but "you can't have that in an environment where traffic never stops. ... We need to develop a pedestrian-friendly attitude."

Noting that some streets within the city are state-owned, Wythe said waiting for state funding to make intersection improvements "has been very frustrating." She urged for the most expeditious solution. "I don't want to wait until someone is killed," she said.

The final question of the evening asked how candidates would manage potential job conflicts. However, neither candidate believed his or her employment or personal activities posed a conflict.

"It's just as important that I don't allow council duties to impact my work," said Wythe.

Zak said he uses his small business experience in his role on the city council and would do the same as mayor.

In closing, Wythe described the city as two separate entities — one a business aspect, the other involving public services — with a single source of revenue: tax dollars. She confirmed her support of the natural gas line to Homer and stressed public participation. Finally, she encouraged the involvement of youth "because you're the ones who will live with what we're constructing today."

Zak closed by saying city sales tax should not be limited to providing public services such as water, sewer and safety. "We need to plow it back in and plant a few seeds in the local economy," he said, using financial support of the chamber of commerce as a suggestion. "When you see why some communities are highly effective ... it's not because they have tightened the budget or lowered taxes so strictly. We're not putting those dollars to work. We need to put them to work."

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