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 second in a two-part series looking at the difference between first class and home rule cities. This week, the Homer Tribune looks at previous attempts to become a home rule city.
By Carey Restino
Homer’s most recent dance with home rule status isn’t its first. As signatures are gathered around town in favor of creating a charter commission, a few longtime residents noted recently that Homer has been here before.
In 1976, the city went through the process of transforming from a first class city into a home rule city, but the charters proposed at that time failed to win the favor of local voters.
The city of Homer’s nearly 2,000 residents pondered home rule status, inspired by issues such as a residency requirement for council members. A commission was set up to create a charter, and a series of meetings held on the proposed guiding document for the city.
In an edition of the Homer News from that year, a pre-election story noted three main issues the charter hoped to address. First, it proposed a longer law-making process than the state-mandated ordinance process. With the current system, ordinances are introduced in one meeting, then a public hearing is held at a second city council meeting, after which the council can choose to vote or wait to vote at a third meeting.
The 1976 charter proposed that ordinances would be passed only after two hearings and three meetings, which then city clerk Charlotte Calhoun characterized as “costly and confusing to citizens.”
Another issue raised by the first charter attempt was a requirement of council members to file financial interest statements when their firms plan to do business with the city.
A third change the charter would have instituted was a three-year residency requirement for candidates for office. Ken Castner, one of the advocates of the current charter initiative, lobbied in opposition to the residency requirement, saying it “plays on people’s fears and biases.”
Advocates for the requirement said it would allow residents of the area to have ample time to get to know the candidate as well as provide the candidate a chance to learn about the city.
Asaiah Bates, then a city council member, said he favored a one-year requirement and would not support the three-year suggested period.
In June of that year, the city council set a three-year residency requirement, inspiring council member Gary Williams — then the Homer News publisher — to resign. Williams would not qualify for the three-year residency until that fall, and though he was exempt from the new rule, he resigned for “reasons of conscience.” The council voted 4-0 to decline Williams’ resignation, however.
In the beginning of the debate over the formation of a charter commission, the city administration provided a list of reasons for switching from state-mandated rules from Title 29 of state code to home rule status.
City administrators said the city’s roads and trails program — then handled by the Kenai Peninsula Borough — could become the city’s responsibility.
A charter could eliminate runoff elections in cases where no city candidate received more than 40 percent of the vote, city administrators said, noting a cost savings as a result.
The city also touted the carrot of having more control over its own property for long-range development, particularly with regard to the Homer Spit land.
But on Oct. 7, the charter failed 312-174. The charter commission — Dr. Paul Eneboe, Nick Gagle, Angelo Hillas (then replaced by Jane Cason) Richard Inglima and Milt Turkington Sr., Sam Matthews and Bob Burnett — then had a year to create a revised charter.
A questionnaire was then distributed to city voters, and more debate over the three-year residency followed. It was eventually modified to a one-year requirement in the city and a three-year requirement in the Homer recording district, a wider area spanning much of the Southern Peninsula.
In August of 1977, voters turned down the charter by two votes — 172-170. Castner filed suit against the city shortly thereafter in Superior Court, asking that the residency requirement be declared unconstitutional. The council decided then to place the question of residency before the voters. Voters weighed in in favor of a one-year residency requirement by a 98-vote margin.
Back in the ’70s, one big hurtle indicated by Homer residents completing the city’s questionnaire regarding the charter was a lack of understanding as to what the charter contained and how it would impact the city’s future. Charter meetings went sparsely attended, if at all, and voters indicated they were confused and disinterested in sifting through the code.
In a recent letter to the editor, charter commissioner Eneboe recalled the opposition to the charter by Castner and Williams.
“Their opposition was — in part — because they disliked the residency requirements to run for office,” Eneboe wrote. “Mostly, however, they felt home rule was unnecessary and Homer would function just as well or better under State municipal code.
“They were right, we really didn’t need home rule, we’ve been doing just fine operating under the state municipal code.”
Eneboe noted that the first proposed charter differed little from the state’s version of municipal code, and therefore was somewhat unnecessary.
“The trick is to identify just what problem the city has that a home rule charter will fix,” Eneboe wrote. “If such a problem and fix can’t be clearly identified, it’s just difficult and expensive busywork. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”
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