• City council takes up the question at work-session
By Naomi Klouda
The Primary Election takes focus now, but less than two months remain before Homer makes a decision at the ballot on whether to change its form of city government.
At a works session Monday, the Homer City Council took advice from City Attorney Tom Klinkner on steps ahead if Homer voters decide to switch to “home rule” on Oct. 7. Mayor Beth Wythe requested the session to take up questions on the minds of city council members.
What’s at stake if the ballot initiative is adopted?
Ahead would be two separate votes for residents: one, in a ballot prop on Oct. 7, that if approved, establishes a charter commission. The following year, a charter or constitution would need to be approved by voters, Klinkner said.
It would mean a change from “general law” to “home rule” city government. But will city government proceed any differently? What steps should the present city council take now?
At the end of the work-session, council members decided they will draft a resolution that protects the city from liability. They may even approve a set budget for attorney hours to oversee the legality of details while the new commission sets up a city charter.
“I’m not sure if the genesis of this idea has the best interest of the city in mind,” Councilman Beau Burgess told the city attorney. “The perfect storm is that voters will vote on something that is absolute junk and as a city we have to fill in the gaps and pay with legal fees the next 20 years.”
But the city council walks a delicate line in not influencing voters on the matter at the ballot, the mayor reminded the council. At the same time, they wanted the attorney’s take on what to look for to protect city government should voters decide on the change.
The biggest difference between cities that go by municipal code and those that develop their own laws is in the charter an elected commission develops, said City Attorney Klinkner. Kenai, Kodiak, Seward, Valdez, Fairbanks, Cordova, Ketchikan, Nenana, North Pole, Palmer, Petersburg and Wrangell are all home rule cities. But those are the minority, setting up their charters in the 1960s soon after Alaska Statehood. The other 133 Alaska towns went with municipal codes spelled out in the state law.
Ken Castner and Ginny Espenshade brought forth the idea last fall as they briefed the council on their desire to propose that Homer become a home rule city. Castner said one of the things that inspired him to propose the action was to invigorate conversation and diffuse apathy among city residents regarding their government.
“There is a malaise in town that needs to be addressed,” Castner said. Creating a constitution – or charter – could open up new pathways for the citizenry to feel more enfranchised.
One of the main features of a home rule city is that it adopts home rule charters as set out in Alaska Statute Title 29. Castner and Espenshade said that if the community were to be involved in the creation of these charters, it could help build community involvement with local government.
Klinkner said the evolution of the Title 29 since statehood has blurred some of the distinctions between general law and home rule cities. Charter amendments or any changes to a charter that is created require voter approval in municipal elections. For example, if the city wants to sell land, it must go to the voters for approval. But there is also a long list that spells out what a charter can’t change. Acts like conflict of interest rules already in effect, 911 emergency services, revenue bonds, notice of elections, garbage and solid waste arrangements, and laws on eminent domain.
The charter commission that will decide these matters is elected in the same Oct. 7 ballot question vote. Commissioners named on the ballot are Mayor Wythe, Doug Stark, Paul Hueper, Marilyn Hueper, Lindianne Sarno, Ken Castner and Jon Faulkner. Homer City Clerk Jo Johnson explained that in order for each to qualify, each fulfilled the requirement of gathering 50 signatures in a petition that was presented to the Homer Clerk’s Office.
Councilmember Barbara Howard, who will finish up her term and is not seeking re-election, said she won’t be around to take part in any potential changes. But she views it as an indictment against the present city council that a new effort is underway for finding another way of doing city government.
“This is an initiative from the streets. They don’t think we are doing a good job on anything and there is a better form of government, so they are wanting to provide for it. We’re not doing anything correct and apparently maybe they don’t want any services from us,” Howard said.
Council members would still have the same role under home rule, but a new council would be elected to go with the new charter, City Manager Walt Wrede said.
In Ken Castner’s statement on why he wanted to seek home rule, he said those who know him know he’s had his own “issues” with the City.
“As a long-time resident who doesn’t plan on leaving, I’d like to see the city live up to its potential. I don’t expect a home rule charter to be a complete answer to our individual and collective problems, but it can definitely lay out a framework for bringing our values and needs to the forefront. The charter would become the basis for addressing priority problems and funding priority needs, as determined by our citizens. Collective problems such as the handling of storm water (now an individual problem neighbors pass to downslope neighbors) and the flushing of treated water into the Bay (with its enormous waste and expense) might then be treated as the priorities they are for community well-being,” he wrote in a Homer Tribune opinion piece.
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