By Hannah Heimbuch
Local residents interested in making Homer a home-rule city are one step closer to developing a charter. Among the information presented to the Homer City Council Monday night was a memorandum announcing that the Charter Commission Election petition submitted by Ken Castner in late January had enough voter signatures to pass muster.
The council voted twice on charter commission business, once to open the campaign for commission candidates on March 1, and again to put the election on the October ballot. Councilwoman Barbara Howard alone disagreed with the March opening, and the ballot decision passed unanimously.
Councilman David Lewis proposed the earlier candidacy period – rather than the previously discussed May 15 to July 15 – as a way to give potential candidates more time to campaign before summer’s busy season hits.
“May 1, people are getting ready to go fishing and doing all sorts of things,” Lewis said. “This will give plenty of time for everyone to participate who wants to.”
Castner voiced support for the earlier time frame, saying that it will offer a longer period of public discussion about what Homer residents really want to see and get out of this commission.
“We are entering a period where people are going to be expressing ideas about what a constitution would mean to the town,” Castner said. “We would like to keep a dialogue going.”
The commission will eventually be composed of seven people, who will spend a year developing a city charter that could potentially reshape how Homer makes some of its most important decisions. It is based on a citizen-led, rather than city-led philosophy of leadership.
The charter would be subject to another public vote, following the year of commission work to develop it.
Those who want to run for a spot on the commission will have from March 1 to July 15 to collect the signatures of 50 Homer resident voters supporting their candidacy. Members of the public can sign more than one candidate’s petition. It’s also permissible for a current city council member to throw his or her name in the hat.
During the regular election Oct. 7, Homer can vote in its seven new representatives.
The working dynamic of the commission isn’t set in stone yet, and according to several council members, that’s a good thing.
“I don’t believe we should meddle in the process or define what the process should be prematurely,” said Councilman Beau Burgess. “We should leave those elected people, if elected, to define their rules and govern themselves.”
While some questions regarding commission functions and parameters arose in discussion, during the Committee of the Whole and the regular council meeting, the council held off on making any kind of judgment call on how the charter commission will be governed.
This is because the council is supportive of the charter process, Burgess said, and does not want to be seen as influencing a citizen-led change of governance in a negative way.
“I want the community at large to understand that we as a council want to support the community when it takes initiative to redirect what we are, and what we want to be, and how we govern ourselves,” he said.
The state law supports an early lack of parameters, Burgess said, and basic guidelines for open and public meetings can be supported by information through the city clerk’s office.
The conversations that will arise from collection signatures, from campaigning and from discussion developing in public and online forums, Castner said, will help guide the commission in the direction Homer needs it to go.
“This is something that I think we should all work on together, including everybody in this room,” Castner said when addressing the council. “What I want is an open dialogue about the benefit of this, and also the costs.”
One way he’d like to see collaboration happen, he said, is through the city website. A well established tool already, he said, it would be an excellent place to post white papers and discussion boards surrounding the commission.
Castner and Ginny Espenshade began the effort to garner public support for a change to home-rule status this fall, collecting signatures from November through most of January. Castner was pleased with the recent progress made, he said, and with the council’s support.
“I want everybody in the listening audience to know that as one of the instigators of the home-rule process, that I concur with the actions that the council took tonight,” he said. “There was a discussion of Committee of the Whole that wasn’t broadcast, but I’m in complete agreement with what you’ve done.”
That being said, Castner did point out some concern regarding a memorandum submitted to the council by the city attorney, Thomas Klinkner. The memorandum discusses the effects on the city of adopting a home rule charter, according to Klinkner’s analysis. Some of the points made in that memorandum, Castner said, create gray areas of how the charter and commission can function and didn’t make sense in terms of previous progress.
“I especially don’t understand it in view of where I’ve been with you guys for the last half year,” he said.
Castner is opptimistic about the process of developing and writing the charter once commissioners have been elected, he said, and believes the intelligence and ingenuity of the Homer community will prevail over the difficulty of navigating city code and the many complexities of city governance. Part of that will be not spending the year nitpicking the details of city function, but setting up large scale guidelines for what the rights and responsibilities of the city will be.
“My idea is that we’re going to build some side boards around city government,” Castner said. “But I think we’re going down the wrong path if we start getting into the day-to-day affairs.”
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