Kelly Fishler, a candidate for the District 2 Mendenhall Valley seat in the City and Borough of Juneau's City Assembly, sat down with the Empire for an interview on August 7. Fishler is challenging incumbent Michelle Bonnet Hale, who is running for a second term on the assembly. The election will take place on October 5 in a largely vote-by-mail affair.(Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Fishler seeks seat on CBJ Assembly

She’s challenging the incumbent

Kelly Fishler is an avid home gardener. She grows Swiss chard, berries, and kale in her yard — she says it’s one way she can live more sustainably. Sustainability is an idea that she says is important to her and a perspective she’d like to bring with her as a member of the City and Borough of Juneau’s City Assembly.

Fishler is a candidate for the District 2 Mendenhall Valley seat, currently held by Michelle Bonnet Hale, who is running for a second term on the assembly. The election will take place on Oct. 5 in a largely vote-by-mail affair.

Fishler is a longtime Alaskan and has been a Juneau resident for about two years. She said she felt at home in Juneau from the start, and that’s one of the reasons she decided to run for the City Assembly.

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“I really want to see Juneau become the best it can be,” she said, adding that sustainability is the key that will allow her two young children to thrive in Juneau as adults.

“I really want to be here in 40 years. I want my kids to be here in 40 years,” she said. “It’s not fear that drives self-sufficiency, it’s wisdom.”

Challenges

Fishler described a constellation of concerns about Juneau’s future, including population loss, cost of living and waste management as the areas that are driving her run for the seat. She sees many of these issues as being interconnected.

“We need to make Juneau an attractive place to live,” she said. “Why can’t Juneau be a place where problems get solved?”

She said that she’d like to see Juneau adopt a 25-, 50- and 75-year plan for the future.

“We have a capital improvement plan until 2027. It addresses roofs and building issues. We can’t stop there,” she said, mentioning a model plan from Portland, Oregon, that takes into account schools, neighborhoods, safety, private enterprise and parks.

According to CBJ’s website, the city updates the Capital Improvement Plan each year, and the plan looks out for six years.

The site reads: “The CIP serves as the overarching strategic plan for improving the public infrastructure of Juneau and is collectively developed by the CBJ Assembly, its boards and commissions, CBJ staff, and the citizens of CBJ.”

In addition, the city’s Community Development department’s website includes a number of comprehensive planning documents, including those developed for specific areas of town. Available plans date back to 1981.

Beyond creating a longer-term master plan, Fishler said the city can help residents become more self-sufficient by making sure that zoning and other city rules support people in sustainability efforts and business creation.

“We have abundant clean water and hydropower. We have lots of empty buildings where we could grow produce in hydroponic gardens inside,” she said, noting that the city could support entrepreneurs in this endeavor, which could help make life here more affordable for families.

“Juneau is an amazing city. But, it’s expensive for families to live here. One of the things the city can do is support entrepreneurs,” she said. “Living in Juneau, you should not have to pay a lot for produce. We can grow it locally,” she said. “We can get people to start businesses.”

Property taxes are another area of concern for her. She mentioned that earlier this year Hale successfully carried the water on a small mill rate reduction—a move she supports. However, Fishler said her overall property tax bill still went up due to increasing property assessments.

“When taxes go up, our cost of living goes up,” she said. She said she’d look for additional tax-reduction opportunities if elected.

“As a candidate, I want to make sure the city does everything it can to make sure people get out of poverty.”

Fishler said she is also interested in tackling Juneau’s quickly filling landfill.

“I want to work on things that are not glamorous, like the landfill,” she said.

Fishler suggested that solutions may lie in new technologies that should be explored sooner rather than later.

“The reality is that no one wants to talk about the dump. But, we need to take care of it,” she said.

Concerns about the landfill have swirled around the assembly for the last few election cycles.

As the chair of the Public Works and Facilities Committee, Hale has chaired several recent public meeting that outline options for the city’s waste, including the possibility of establishing a zero waste plan.

Tackling the trash

On the issues

At the time of the early August interview, Fishler said that she would not have supported the city’s then-recent extension of the COVID-19 mitigation measures beyond the July 31 expiration date. Since then, the Emergency Operations Center has raised the overall community alert to Level 3, with full community mitigation strategies in place. The change went into effect on Aug. 20, against the backdrop of increasing local infection rates.

Fishler said that last year, she had testified against the mask mandate and thinks the city needs “a more balanced approach” to dealing with the pandemic.

Fishler also said that masks can cause breathing issues, prompt claustrophobia and serve as a trigger for people who have suffered sexual trauma.

“In early 2020, no one knew what COVID would look like,” she said. “So the assembly made the best decisions they could at the time with the best intentions.”

However, she said now it’s time to move away from the emergency footing and find “stability.”

“After a year and a half, it’s not the same type of emergency. It’s imperative that we find another category,” she said. “Economics and mental health took a hit. It’s really important that residents make decisions. People need to be responsible.”

In an email late Thursday evening, she stood firm in her position.

“As a resident and a candidate, I will always advocate for the best course of action that protects all aspects of health for Juneau — physical, mental and economic. I do not support infringement of bodily autonomy when it comes to COVID mitigation. Juneau residents do not need to be required by mandates to be healthy, wash our hands, and be mindful of other’s health vulnerability. Our high vaccination rate is evidence of that.”

She said that “protection of personal liberties is highly important” to her, and that it was often on her mind as she searched for meaning while separated from family members during military deployments.

“In the future, we will have to consider whether we keep going with the aforementioned strategies or go another way. If elected, I will be part of that discussion and I look forward to exploring what is best for the good people of Juneau,” she said via email.

She was complimentary of local vaccination incentive programs and suggested that the idea could extend to other pandemic-related efforts.

“I would really like to see CBJ launch a similar wellness or fitness campaign. One of the leading comorbidities for COVID is obesity. Perhaps it’s time to do what Oklahoma City did in 2007 and start encouraging Juneau to decrease our risk factors and increase our health. This way we can come together against COVID and be a stronger and healthier community together, however many feet apart we are,” she said in an email.

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Fishler said that she did not support the failed ballot initiatives to limit cruise ship traffic.

“The city must find a way to balance the needs of residents with cruise ship revenue,” she said. “We don’t want to compromise the relationships. Juneau should be good for locals and cruise ship passengers.”

In terms of fireworks—another issue that’s been spearheaded by Hale and one that could come back before the assembly—Fishler said she is conflicted.

“Everyone likes seeing them. But, as a mom, I have a difficult relationship with fireworks,” she said. “It’s really wise for the city to put forth rules.”

While the October election will take place primarily via mail-in ballots, assembly members are still considering the shape of future elections. Fishler said she’d like to see the city form a closer partnership with the state to maintain more accurate voter rolls.

”As a veteran who has voted by absentee several times, I wholly support the ability to vote without going to the polls on Election Day! That being said, Alaska’s voter rolls have a lengthy process to go through in order to clean them up. At this time, absentee voting seems to have fewer ballot issues than universal mail-in voting” she said in an email about her position.

Background

Fishler is a U.S. Navy veteran and has also served in the National Guard. She is married to an active duty Coast Guard member.

She’s currently using her GI benefits to pursue a degree in Public Affairs from the University of Alaska Southeast as she focuses on raising her two young children.

She said COVID-19 has made it difficult to connect with other students.

“A lot of our students are suffering.”

Earlier this year, she worked as an intern for the often controversial State Senator Lora Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River known for her headline-grabbing pandemic-related views and a mask-based feud with Alaska Airlines.

But, Fishler said the arrangement was more about practicality than politics.

“While there were multiple openings at different offices, Senator Reinbold’s office was able to employ me at less than full time, which was important because I was taking 15 credits that semester. I learned a lot about bills and the legislature while working in the office. While she is a public figure who draws strong opinions, I can’t think of one person who agrees completely with their supervisor, boss, spouse, or parents on every single thing. I applaud Senator Reinbold for being willing and flexible to accommodate a working mom who was also in school,” Fishler said in an email to the Empire to clarify the relationship.

Fishler lists MiCasa as her favorite local restaurant and said her family likes to visit Point Bridget and enjoys hiking the Herbert Glacier Trail. She also enjoys foraging, especially for blueberries near Eaglecrest.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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