Mel Stephens, a candidate for the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly, took a round-about path to a career practicing law in Kodiak.
Stephens, who has lived in Kodiak for 40 years, attended the California Institute of Technology in the 1960s with the goal of winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
“It became clear I probably was not going to be on the shortlist any time soon,” Stephens said, sitting in the basement of 326 Center St., a building he now owns, and where his law practice is located.
Upon graduating from college, Stephens joined the Peace Corps and became a math and science teacher in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. When the Nigerian Civil War broke out, he moved to Kenya, where he continued to serve as a teacher for a few months before returning to the U.S.
Following his time in the Peace Corps, Stephens joined the U.S. Army and was deployed to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the Pacification Program and joined an advisory team in the Mekong Delta.
Stephens describes the region in Vietnam where he was posted as “nicely pacified” at the time of his service, and said his experience was so positive he hoped to gain a position with the foreign service so he could return to Vietnam after his military deployment ended.
When the foreign service position didn’t pan out, Stephens worked in the U.S. Office of Education in Washington, D.C. for a few years.
“It was clear I was spinning my wheels,” he said. He used his G.I. benefits to pay his way through law school, and graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1977.
After graduating, Stephens moved to Portland, Oregon, where he met an attorney who was about to move to Kodiak. The attorney offered Stephens a job in Kodiak for a summer.
“It was an offer for a free vacation in an exotic place,” he said.
But once Stephens arrived in Kodiak, he didn’t want to leave. He moved to the island permanently in 1980.
“Kodiak was a real godsend to me,” he said. “In Kodiak, you don’t have to make an effort to meet people who are really different from you.”
Stephens served as the city of Kodiak’s attorney until 1997. He is still practicing law, but refers more cases to other local attorneys. During his career, about half of his caseload came from the city of Kodiak. The rest was focused on business law.
He has already served on the borough assembly numerous times, including a one-year term in 2005 and a three year term beginning in 2011. Most recently, he was elected to the assembly in 2015 and resigned in 2016 following the selection of Michael Powers as the borough manager, which Stephens opposed.
If elected, Stephens said he will advocate for the borough to become more fiscally conservative.
The reality of the shrinking budget, he said, is that “we need to be as frugal and efficient in our spending habits as we can be.”
The Kodiak Daily Mirror reached out to assembly candidates to get more information about their reasons for running and what they hope to accomplish. Here are Stephens’ responses.
Kodiak Daily Mirror: What compelled you to decide to run for a borough assembly seat?
Mel Stephens: There were only two candidates for two open seats on the assembly. I felt the voters should have at least some choice in who they elected.
KDM: What experiences have you had that best prepared you to fill this role?
MS: My service on the borough assembly three times in the past and having approximately 17 years experience as a municipal attorney for the city of Kodiak are of obvious relevance here. So, too, however, is the fact that I am a local business owner and 40-year resident of the community.
KDM: What do you think are the biggest issues facing the borough currently?
MS: By far the biggest issue facing the borough is the continued, significant net out-migration of population. In the nine years from 2010 through 2018, the borough experienced a net out-migration of 1,714, a figure which represents 12.6% of the 2010 population. This was significantly greater than any other comparable community in Alaska — e.g., Mat-Su Borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough each experienced a net in-migration (of 9,750 and 595, respectively) over the same period.
KDM: How do you hope to address these issues?
MS: There are no simple answers to a problem of this magnitude. The first step, however, is to get everyone to recognize the problem and how big it is. If elected, I will try to get the staff and assembly to focus on big-picture issues such as this one.
KDM: Are there any pieces of legislation or topics of discussion that you are particularly looking forward to addressing if elected?
MS: I don’t think we need more laws. I would prefer that we concentrate primarily on administering the ones we have in an effective, consistent and thoughtful manner.
KDM: What are the biggest challenges you foresee in your role as a borough assembly member?
MS: Democracy is seldom as nimble and responsive as one might wish. At times it can border upon the ugly, with contending groups focusing upon narrow and self-serving issues and insisting that their views and goals be given priority over all others. The challenge is always to keep one’s eye on the big picture — i.e., the overall interest of the community — and to remember that service as an elected official is not a popularity contest (even if the process of getting elected sometimes is).