Editor’s note: This four-part series explores a proposition initiative voters will consider on the Oct. 7 ballot. Part One takes a look at how two other cities on the Kenai Peninsula deal with the freedoms or restrictions outlined in their home rule charters.
By Naomi Klouda
The mayor of Kenai noticed that under home rule charter, she held the power to make pardons in court cases and regulate the price on a gallon of milk.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter has served her town for 10 years and found no occasion for pardoning anyone. She didn’t get a say in how much grocers charged for their milk, either. These were “obsolete” powers designated to a town mayor in 1967, when Kenai had newly incorporated as a home rule city, Porter said.
“That’s an example of what was written in the home rule charter. The mayor had the power to regulate the price of milk and to pardon people,” Porter said.
When the home rule charter was written for Kenai, there were plans for creating a municipal court, explained city attorney Scott Bloom.
“I think that may be why the mayor was given pardoning powers,” he said.
To change it, City of Kenai voters agreed at the ballot to delete those provisions.
“Any change in the charter goes to the ballot,” Porter said. “It was a case where we needed to clean up language; we had ‘he’ used throughout that we changed to a more a generic term.”
The charter is what determines the powers of a home rule city. In Kenai, the charter did not give the mayor many powers.
“I’m given one vote just like each member of the city council,” she said. “I don’t have the power to veto.”
Like Homer, Kenai has a city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of the city.
The mayor’s role remained a weak ceremonial figurehead, but Kenai’s ability to tax endowed it with powers that generalized law cities like Homer do not possess. The council can decide to tax or not to tax.
“We’re a little city in ourselves; Take the sales tax on food,” Porter said, referring to the borough’s three percent tax on food that voters agreed was not to be applied to non-prepared foods October to June. “When the (Kenai Peninsula) Borough voted on that, we don’t have to follow it. We just don’t have to do it.”
Kenai applies a six percent sales tax, three percent for the borough and three percent for the city.
Under home rule, Kenai can implement other taxes as well.
“Here’s another example: the bed tax the borough was considering. We didn’t have to pay any attention to that,” Porter said. “We can have a bed tax if we want. In fact, we did at one time. We deleted it after it got too many complaints. The council did it; we instituted it and we took it away.”
The advantage, Porter believes, may come from not being bound to the larger Kenai Borough government’s decisions in all areas.
“I think we have a lot of flexibility to make our own decisions,” she said.
City attorney Bloom said he has worked for both a home rule city and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is not a home rule municipality. He agrees with Porter.
“Home rule city has broader powers and much more flexibility than a non-home rule city,” he said.
To tax or not to tax
Seward developed its charter in 1912, when the town incorporated. The city code developed after the charter, and more than 100 years later, is considered a large document that can use some trimming, said assistant City Manager Ron Long.
If Seward police wanted, they could ticket people for spitting in the street, because that’s written in code. It also states that people can’t hawk fortune telling, archaic laws that stem from an old fashioned value system that wouldn’t apply much today.
Ron Long lives and breathes municipal government, a professional and a politician who has served on the borough assembly nine years. He said the broadness of home rule means “you can do anything in this world that isn’t prohibited by state statute.” It’s based on the values of a community that writes the charter.
Under second-class city status, you can only do those things specifically named or authorized by statute, he said.
“I wouldn’t say either one of them gives more freedoms or more restrictions,” Long said. “It’s just different approaches and ways of doing things and anything can be done. There’s a couple of ways to get there.” For example, consider animal control issues. Since the borough didn’t create an animal control arm to deal with barking dogs or shelter issues, it would take a vote of the people for the borough to start an animal control department.
But with home rule, if a city like Seward wanted animal control powers, it could pass an ordinance and have it, Long said.
Of course, with that comes this warning: “You have more authority as a home rule city. Be careful how you use it,” he added.
To ward off the rural Alaska problem of large dog lots or the noise of city snow removers waking up folks at night, Seward has a decibel level law. Neither dogs nor plows can be too loud without being in violation.
A recent change was made to the city’s charter when Seward voters agreed to a two-year budget instead of an annual one, reflecting that any change to the city charter must go to a people’s vote.
Seward’s Vice Mayor Marianna Keil said city code is flexible enough to let them make changes in other cases without taking matters to voters. But it’s considerate to let voters decide.
Fluoride, for one, was a discussion dividing the town into camps.
“It got to the point (at city council meetings) that fluoride was all anyone wanted to talk about,” Keil said. “Finally, we put it to an advisory vote, but that had nothing to do with the charter.”
Seward agreed in the end to let the city keeping adding fluoride to the water supply. But the city refrained from adding it because the matter had proven so contentious.
The council also can vote in a tax increase or decrease. Instead though, in order to be considerate of their citizens, they put the matter to a vote a few years ago when a one percent tax hike was needed to keep up with inflation.
“That one was passed by one vote,” Keil recalled. “That should show the power of voting.”
Even though Seward is under home rule, Keil hears people complain that citizens feel they don’t have enough say in local government. She also hears fellow council members complain they don’t have the power to make certain changes.
“That might have nothing to do with whether you have a charter or not, or home rule or not,” she said. “There are a lot of personalities in small towns.”
But Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, overseeing both classes of cities, says there’s no doubt the home rule towns have more power.
“There’s a self-determination that first-class cities do not have,” he said. “They do have more power.”
Back in Homer
On Oct. 7, if voters decide they want to go the route of home rule, it will mark an unusual decision in Alaska government. Mayor Navarre said he can’t recall any other city that’s made the choice to switch from first class to home rule.
“Once it’s been set up and operating as a first-class city, that becomes the status quo. That’s what you end up sticking with,” he said. “It’s difficult to make the change.”
Homer City Manager Walt Wrede said if the vote is yes, a seven-member charter commission will craft a charter.
“That’s when you’ll get more information about what would be changed in terms of the powers government has and what it doesn’t have,” Wrede said. “The charter lines out what the powers will be or not be.”
Either way, under the current Title 29 system or home rule, there is a city administration to perform services like police, fire, finance, planning and zoning and a clerk’s office.
“There will still be a city government and administration, but the shape and size could change,” Wrede said.
The administration could grow if added responsibilities are made by the charter. Platting, for example, is done by the borough. Wrede said he has listened to platting used as an example of what some Homer residents say they want more control over. Platting is the process of planning subdivisions.
“You’re always going to have some kind of administration to carry out city functions, but the size, the shape and how it is configured could change based on what the charter says about powers,” Wrede said.
Wrede has experience under home rule as well as the generalized structure under Title 29 in state law.
Cordova, where Wrede served as city planner, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough, which he managed, were both under home rule.
“The charter wasn’t that restrictive,” Wrede said. “I can’t think of that many instances when we had to go to the voters on everything. Most of those were financial (decisions). The powers that were given to the government in the charters were not that much different.”
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