By Carey Restino
Editor’s note: So far, much of the conversation about Homer’s potential move to become a home rule city has included broad statements about public involvement in government and the powers bestowed upon its elected officials. But what does it really mean to become a home rule city? This is the first in a two-part series looking at the difference between first class and home rule cities. This week, the Homer Tribune looks at the stated intent behind those initiating the process, as well as the way the state defines the two city classifications.
This month, an effort to form a charter commission was started by Homer resident Ken Castner and others in the community interested in exploring the process of becoming a home rule city. Those in support of the effort must now gather 185 signatures — 15 percent of the voters from the last election — in order to begin the process of forming a charter commission.
But while the ball is rolling toward the formation of a charter commission and possibly the eventual move to become a home rule city, there are still many questions concerning what the difference between the two forms of government really are.
According to local government specialists with the Local Boundary Commission, the differences are largely defined by what is adopted into a home rule city’s charter. A charter, which is referred to as a constitution in some conversations, stands in place of the state statutes that define a first class city in Alaska. That doesn’t mean that a home rule city can define laws that overrule those of the state, however. State laws stand, however, home rule cities can define through their charters what their government looks like, as well as set policies into law that can only be overturned by a vote of the people, rather than through an ordinance.
“Once the voters adopt that charter, it’s set in stone until the next election,” said Brice Eningowuk, a local government specialist with the Local Boundary Commission. “That’s the major difference.”
This comes into play when dealing with setting financial policy, for example. A city charter can limit the amount or form of taxation, or set policy regarding the use of funds. Currently, city council can set fiscal policy and tax rates, but those decisions cannot bind future councils. When a new council comes into power, those policies can be changed in a few meetings. Laws created by a charter would be more binding because they could only be changed by a vote of the people.
“A home rule city has a whole lot more power than a first class city does,” said Brent Williams, also a local government specialist with the boundary commission. “But its powers come from the charter.”
More options for council, administration composition
State law for first class cities defines how a mayor and council is elected, the length of their terms and certain powers within, including what impact the mayor’s vote has in breaking a tie vote of the council.
Currently, the Homer City Council has six members elected at large and a mayor elected at large for a three-year term, as mandated by state law. Under a home rule city, however, the city’s charter could define the government differently.
It was this feature of the home rule city that appealed to some in Homer several decades ago, according to Paul Eneboe, who recalled the history of the home rule concept in a recent letter to the editor.
Eneboe, who sat on the Homer Charter Commission then, said those in support of becoming a home rule city then wanted to impose a residency requirement of three years to anyone wanting to run for city council. Castner was one of those opposed to change, and lobbied successfully against it.
Now, Castner said the community deserves to weigh in on whether the current city government arrangement is working. Through the city charter, the city could choose to elect its city manager, for example, or do away with the position altogether. But like last time, those changes must be approved by a vote of the people.
A lengthy process
In recalling a home rule petition process she was involved with in California, Homer City Councilwoman Barbara Howard remembered endless nights pouring through city code in an effort to create a charter, or constitution. At a recent council meeting, Howard commented that the only good that came out of the process was that a handful of people on the charter commission became more educated about city government.
Even the process of getting the charter commission formed is lengthy and seems to mandate a special election at some point. First signatures must be collected to form a commission, then at least seven candidates must apply to be on the commission, gathering 50 signatures each for their nomination. If fewer apply, the process stops. Then an election must be held to create the commission, and the charter begins its work. They must prepare the home rule charter within a year. The charter is then filed with the city clerk, and another election must be held between 30 and 90 days following its publication. If approved, it becomes the law of the municipality. If rejected, the commission must prepare another charter, and submit that to the voters within one year. If that charter is rejected, the commission dissolves and the process is nullified.
But sifting through the mountains of city code is likely to be the most time-consuming part of the processes.
“Drafting a charter is a huge undertaking and a lot of hard work,” Eneboe wrote. “My memory is of spending night after night plowing through the municipal code, plus another three or four sample charters, line by line. Then we would debate almost every line or section. It was a great civics lesson, I learned more about cities and governance that I thought I ever wanted to know.”
Castner agrees with the likelihood that creating a city charter will be a tremendous amount of work for all involved, but said that is part of what attracted him to the idea. Frustrated with what he sees as a lack of responsiveness by city administration and council to the public, he hopes the process of creating a city charter will invigorate public participation in city government.
“This is a government all about administrative convenience, not about any diligence in trying to communicate with the people,” Castner said. “I think we can do better.”
Next week, the Homer Tribune will look at some of the 10 home rule cities in Alaska and see how their charters impact local government.
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