Navarre finds stride in 2nd run as Peninsula Borough mayor

No staff changes made yet, except for picking chief of staff.

Peninsula ClarionNovember 24, 2011 

KENAI -- Both times Mike Navarre has stepped into office as Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor he inherited a disaster of sorts. Earlier this month that disaster was the damage caused by a chain of windstorms that rocked the central and southern Peninsula, costing at least $2 million in repairs and man hours, keeping boroughwide services on alert for several weeks.

"My first week on the job last time I was mayor I got a call at 6 o'clock in the morning from the chief of (Central Emergency Services) saying they needed permission to send equipment out of the fire service area," Navarre said. "I asked what the situation was and the Ninilchik school was burning."

Sometimes chaos is just a state of being in the borough mayor's office. More like "organized chaos," Navarre suggested.

"The answer is that you can't pick when incidents are going to happen and you just have to deal with them as best you can," he said.

Since taking office on Nov. 7, Navarre said he has started to find his feet, becoming more and more comfortable with his duties, but hasn't quite settled into his second term as borough mayor -- the first of which was from 1996 to 1999.

"The thing about this job is that when you come in the door, you're it and so there are things that were on the (previous) mayor's plate that were not resolved for whatever reason," he said sitting in the conference room of the borough building that bears the name of his father, George Navarre. "And so all of that comes at you at once."

Besides getting constant updates on the damage the windstorm caused, Navarre hired Paul Ostrander as chief of staff and began examining how the borough is operating. He said he plans on asking a lot of questions throughout the next couple of weeks.

"There are a lot of good, experienced borough employees that know what they are doing and as far as the department heads go, when we had our first meeting I said, 'I am not asking for any resignations,' " he said. "What I am going to do over a period of time is see how things are working in terms of a team approach."

So far there hasn't been any staff turnover, save for the chief of staff position. He has, however, talked with the department heads and various directors about his approach to government and his general philosophies.

"We should be user-friendly as much as possible," he said. "When people come to the borough with problems, it is often times something that is very high on their agenda or they wouldn't be here.... Even if the person is not entirely satisfied with the resolution they at least understand what the ordinance is or what the regulations are."

At the top of Navarre's list -- aside from the immediate items awaiting the borough assembly at its next meeting on Dec. 6 -- is looking at the growth of government over the past 12 years since he was last mayor.

"I want the public to have a comfort level and a confidence that the taxes they pay, the way the dollars are being spent both within education and general government, is something that ... they are aware of and they also have a level of confidence that says, 'We think local government is doing a good job,' " he said. "I want to rebuild public confidence levels."

That requires a good deal of communication among borough employees, the administration, residents and the Assembly, Navarre said.

As for the Assembly, he added, "There are a lot of bases you have to touch when you do that, or you can just sort of surprise them with it, and I think the less surprises the better ... I want to be real open."

Another big item on Navarre's radar is the oil and gas industry in Cook Inlet that was in a state of decline when he was last mayor.

Now, however, the industry is seeing resurgence spurred by independent producers looking to capitalize on the area's resources. That includes Escopeta Oil, which recently announced it discovered a big reservoir of natural gas offshore north of Nikiski with its Spartan 151 jack-up rig.

Navarre said there has been a push to get a jack-up rig into the inlet for many years dating back to the time he was in the state Legislature. Now, he said he is "very optimistic" about the results of the find.

Besides making sure companies have easy and clear access to borough information about the inlet, Navarre said a healthy dialogue is also needed to not inhibit those companies' success.

"What we are going to do is make sure we have contacts with the various companies that are coming in here," he said. "We've made those contacts and we will continue to make those contacts and ... give them as much information as we can from the borough's perspective and also ask them ways we can help them."

He said he is also prepared to engage in discussions with Gov. Sean Parnell, state agencies and federal agencies if the need arises.

"(It is about) what we can do in order to promote the activity that is going on in a responsible manner," he said. "That goes without saying that it has to be done properly."

Oil employment, Navarre contends, will likely have a positive influence on the area's economy and unemployment situation, especially considering the training students can receive locally and the expressed desire of the oil companies to hire Alaskans, he said.

To further economic development, Navarre said he also would likely fund non-departmental organizations -- like the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council and the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District -- but was unsure to what level.

He said he would want to make sure "we're getting some value for the dollars that are invested there."

Those funding discussions, he said, will likely take place closer to budget time, which is the next big item in his immediate field of vision.

All considered, it is a lot for one person to digest in two weeks, he said. But, he realizes there are multiple facets of management he'll have to successfully juggle.

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