The new Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor’s goal is to answer constituent and staff e-mail the same day it arrives.
That’s 60 to 100 missives Mayor Dave Carey reads and responds to between daybreak and day’s end.
“I live across the street from the borough offices, so it’s pretty easy to just walk to work and home each day,“ Carey said.
“My goal is to answer each and every e-mail the same day I receive it. Last night I spoke in Ninilchik at the American Legion Veteran’s Day dinner. I came back after 9 p.m., and answered e-mails until midnight.”
Carey took office one month ago, winning rule from past Mayor John Williams over 24,800 square miles of a landscape whose inhabitants range from oil refinery workers in Nikiski to commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet to the Alutiiq of Nanwalek. That’s a population of about 52,000. A third of his new province is covered in water, including the sensitive Kenai River and, across the bay, the controversial Chuitna coalfields. And he took office just in time to inherit the newly declared endangered species, the Cook Inlet beluga whale.
Carey, 55, has never married and doesn’t have children. “I’ve always been in public service, whether it was teaching or coaching, it has been my life,“ he said.
When he was campaigning, Carey could be heard saying “the borough mayor must believe in service above self.”
Carey’s stepfather and mother moved to Sterling in 1961. His father, a Navy pilot flying during Operation Deep Freeze in 1956, died when his plane crashed at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. His mother remarried several years later, and with stepfather, Ed Onstott, the family moved to the Kenai Peninsula.
Carey graduated from Kenai Central High in 1970. At Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., he earned his political science and master’s degrees in educational counseling, then returned to the peninsula as a teacher and coach. He taught at Soldotna Middle and High schools, then retired after 34 years.
Even as Soldotna mayor, and now as borough mayor, Carey continues to teach twice-weekly political science classes at Kenai Peninsula College.
“At 21 students, this is the largest class I’ve ever had,” he said, speaking of his fall semester group. Half are high school students able to take his government class for high school credit.
Students seem to respect that a bona fide politician teaches them about government and politics.
“I’ve always required out-of-class political observation in the community,“ he said, including a long list of his own meetings, such as the Soldotna City Council meetings and now, borough assembly meetings.
“What’s nice is that in class we can then discuss what they observed,” he said.
As a professor, retired teacher and the winner of numerous scholarly fellowships, Carey has an academic political bent that influences his mayorship.
“It’s an interesting dynamic — you have to find a balance between theory and practice,” he said. “We ask ourselves at Friday staff meetings: Are we doing what we came here to do? Are we solving problems?”
It’s not always big things that get citizens worked up. One of the first problems Carey was able to solve as mayor involved garbage bins.
In those daily e-mails, “I hear about some of the small things that haven’t been done,” Carey said. “One example is that in Moose Pass, Crown Point and Ninilchik where we have solid waste sites, the containers can’t be used. At Moose Pass and Crown Point, it was because there’s no lids.”
Ravens, crows and eagles took over the Dumpsters and scattered trash about. Bears also make regular visits. A temporary solution involved transferring lidded Dumpsters not being used at Cooper Landing, with bear-proof ones on order for next summer.
“Then at Ninilchik, the (Dumpster) was so high off the ground that some people, and particularly, the elderly couldn’t reach it,“ Carey said. “Now we have it placed at arm level.”
Those outside tax assessment areas seldom have contact with the borough, except over “small projects like this,” Carey said.
His philosophy is: “Government is there to do things people can’t do for themselves. Most people want to trust government. But they want services provided fairly.”
Big issues were sitting on the doorstep the first day Carey took office Oct. 17. A projected $1.7 million in revenue shortfall came with the newly voted-in Prop. 1, removing nonprepared groceries from the borough’s list of sales taxed items on a seasonal basis.
Carey directed his legal staff to prepare an implementation plan. He also directed a review of the shortfall projection, contending he’s not sure that number is so high. Overall, the borough has a heathy revenue stream.
Currently, gross sales are high, Carey said, making him believe the borough can weather the revenue loss from grocery sales.
On his first day as mayor, Carey was also told the federal government agreed to list the Cook Inlet pod of about 345 beluga whale as endangered.
On Oct. 27, Carey attended a Beluga Whale Stakeholder meeting in Anchorage along with 50 other representatives of various groups.
“I was the only high-ranking elected official present, even though Anchorage and the Mat-Su boroughs could be greatly impacted,“ he wrote in a Nov. 1 report.
While Carey said he doesn’t question the science leading to the listing, he wants answers in terms of possible economic impacts: whether inlet drilling could be halted or restricted. Will it mean oil platforms could be restricted in how they receive supplies? How about salmon fishing on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers? Will Williamsport on the other side of Cook Inlet be closed as possible port for the proposed Pebble Mine project?
“We need to explore the questions. We need to also know what should the (beluga population) numbers be? We need to set a goal — what is that number of that population if the environment is appropriate?” Carey said. “We’ll be listening to all stakeholders, then will provide that information to the borough assembly in terms of policy or direction we should take.”
Carey talks tough about the prospect of stiffer environmental regulations emerging to protect the beluga at the cost of borough input and loss of economy.
“As Alaska is preparing to celebrate our 50th year of statehood, it would be unacceptable if the Kenai Peninsula Borough was treated as a colony or territory by the federal government and our sovereign rights of self-determination were lost … and our economy was intentionally sacrificed,” he wrote in one of his public reports.
When Carey assumed office, he remained on several boards, among them chairmanship of Homer Electric Association’s Board of Directors. He also was the Kenai Peninsula Special Management Area board president, a state-appointed group that Carey is resigning from as soon as he is replaced.
Recently, Carey was criticized for possible conflict of interest in being both borough mayor and head of the board that makes decisions about HEA contracts and other sensitive financial matters. His chief of staff, Hugh Chumley, also was on the board.
In response, Carey and Chumley announced their resignations Nov. 12. Carey said he consulted the borough attorney when he took office about whether the HEA post would create a conflict.
“My term would expire this coming year anyway, so the thought of remaining seemed reasonable,” Carey said Friday. “I also had an opinion from the HEA lawyer, who didn’t see a conflict.“
Yet, the borough attorney warned that right-of-way issues might arise. And soon, Carey found HEA meeting nights scheduled for November and December conflicting with borough assembly meeting dates.
“I found that, timewise, I want to focus everything I’m doing on being the borough mayor,” Carey said.