Conflicts resolved, KPB Assembly faces challenging budget

May 21, 2020

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblymembers Tyson Cox, left, and Jesse Bjorkman.
Credit Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly took up debate on the Fiscal Year ‘21 budget Tuesday night, but before they could begin, the matter of not one, but two, potential conflicts of interest needed to be addressed.
    Assembly President Kelly Cooper of Homer had previously ruled that two assembly members, Jesse Bjorkman of Nikiski and Tyson Cox of Soldotna did not have conflicts of interest of such note that it would prevent them from debating and voting on the borough budget, which includes a sizable portion of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s funding. Bjorkman is a teacher and Cox is married to one.
    Cooper had been challenged on her ruling by Soldotna Assemblymember Norm Blakley, who did not get an opportunity to object at the last meeting when the budget was introduced. He asked to be heard to make a case for excluding his two colleagues from the budget proceedings.
     “So we have appropriated or are about to appropriate close to $50 million for the school working budget. Of that, about $38 million goes to wages and benefits. To me, Mr. Bjorkman and Mr. Cox, Mr. Cox through his wife, and Mr. Bjorkman being an employee of (the district), and also he was in the negotiation portion of that, have a conflict of interest in the fact that, they both receive monies through the school district through either their families or directly,” Blakley said. “And the perception, even if we don't think that that's true, the perception of that is really a thing that I think we need to take into consideration.”
    Seward Assemblymember Kenn Carpenter agreed, saying both men will profit from being involved in creating the budget.
    “Mr. Bjorkman will have benefits and payroll come out of this money. And so it's directly out of the pot, whether he's part of the negotiation team or not. But he did negotiate the contract. He was on the negotiating team, and then again, he stated before that his seniority was the reason why. That doesn't make a difference. He's still drawing a paycheck out of that budget. So that's 80% of our budget. Mr. Cox, his wife is part time. She draws a paycheck. However, if the school district is going to cut people, it's going to be cutting part times first, which puts him in a higher category because not only the payroll, but if he doesn't pass a budget, she may lose her job,” Carpenter said. “I really feel that if we pass this and let them vote, then we might as well just cook the chicken before we let the fox in the hen house.”
    Cox claimed his wife, with her experience, would be offered a full-time job rather than let go, even if it was outside her specialty, if she was qualified. Bjorkman pointed out that his salary is already set through his contract with the school district, no matter what amount of appropriation the assembly passes.
    Borough Attorney Collette Thompson agreed, but also pointed out the pitfalls of how a no-conflict ruling appears.
    “There is a distance in that the amount of funding they receive is not directly connected to this appropriation.The amount appropriated to the school district is a lump sum,” Thompson said. “The assembly does not have the ability to adjust or change the school district budget, but there is a direct connection in that we're funding the school district and without that amount that's funded (it) could impact the amount that is received by these folks or their spouses, and it could impact their decisions on how much to appropriate for other borough matters.”
    The worry that at least the appearance of a conflict of interest will remain in the eyes of some, prompted Assemblymember Brent Johnson to ask Thompson about the odds of defending whatever decision the assembly reached.
    “Is there some risk of lawsuit? I think I heard Mr. Baisden in or, our Mayor Pierce said that earlier when President Cooper made a ruling that, you know, we could pass the budget and then because there's this potential conflict of interest, some unhappy person could sue the borough based on what we're doing here today,” Johnson said. “And I almost always try to avoid lawsuits. And so I'm just curious if there's some risk in that?”
    “Through the president. Because both Mr. Bjorkman and Mr. Cox disclosed their potential conflict, and I think it helped to have this discussion, under Alaska case law the presumption is that the ordinance would be considered valid, because the assembly as a body determined that if, if the assembly determines, that there is no conflict. So I'd say that I can't stop someone from suing, but we'd have a very good defense.”
    President Cooper’s ruling that Assemblymembers Cox and Bjorkman do not have a conflict of interest survived the override attempt on a 2-to-5 vote, and so they became free to engage in debate over what will likely be a challenging FY21 budget.
    Blakley and Carpenter cast the two dissenting votes, while Cox and Bjorkman were not allowed to vote.