Citizen-led drive aimed at changing city’s status

Tired of complaining about local government, Homer resident Ken Castner has decided it’s time to make a change. At the regular meeting of the Homer City Council on Monday, Castner announced his plan to bring before city voters the opportunity to change Homer from a first-class city to a home-rule city.

“What ‘home rule’ means is that we can write our own constitution, establish how we operate as a city, how our government operates, how we cooperate with nongovernment operations,” Castner told the council. “I’m not a big believer that government is designed to do everything, but that government should act in a cooperative manner. A constitution would open up new pathways for the citizenry to feel more enfranchised with government.”

One of the reasons behind Castner’s decision is “an ongoing marginalization of the electorate and that the electorate is being asked to do less and less and that there is a general malaise in the town that needs to be addressed.”

 “This process allows us to talk to what we, as citizens, expect as our role as citizens, as your role as elected officials and any executive-administrative role designed,” said Castner.

Speaking with Castner, Homer resident Ginny Espenshade, an attorney who serves as the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, said what attracts her about the process is that it’s “a way for Homer to decide if we have common core values, can we develop guiding principles for the long-term, a guiding document.”

Describing herself as a “constitution geek,” Espenshade said she was thrilled to live in a state where people who wrote the constitution are still alive.

“This process won’t be easy,” said Espenshade of the possible shift from first class to home rule. Creating a constitution would require “a diverse group, a group ready to roll its sleeves up, but what a great work for the community. That’s why it has my support.”

Asked by Mayor Beth Wythe for his thoughts about making a charter or constitution as opposed to the current form of city government, Castner said, “I think everybody knows in the (United States) there is generally a lot of distrust in government. There’s not much I can do with what’s going on in the U.S. Congress … or about the actions of state government in Juneau, but there’s something I can do locally.”

It is Castner’s belief the citizens of Homer have not been included in government.

“I think there’s a general shift away from inclusive government into marginalization and shifting the power away,” he said. “I can give you many examples, but I don’t want to.  What I want to do, rather than continuing to be a complainer, is to find a way to peacefully and democratically change government to be more reflective of what I believe are the core values of the city.”

Twelve of Alaska’s 145 cities are home-rule cities and two of them — Kenai and Seward — are on the Kenai Peninsula, said information provided by the Local Boundary Commission for the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development. By state law, first-class cities may adopt home-rule charters.

“Adoption of a home-rule charter promotes maximum local self-government to the greatest extent possible,” according to Local Boundary Commission’s publication, “Home Rule, Maximum Local Self-Government.” 

Council member Bryan Zak recalled a previous effort to change Homer to a home rule city.

“Why was that situation different than now?” Zak asked Caster.

 Castner said voters stopped that effort because it included a three-year residency requirement to run for election to the council. 

Council member Barbara Howard said a similar shift was attempted in Freemont, Calif., in 1996, while she was serving as city clerk. 

“Their initial premise at the time was that Freemont was the largest general law city with a population of 250,000, which was unusual,” said Howard. “But the bottom line was that we went all through this and in the end, nothing changed. I would say the only good thing about it was that maybe 10 more people became more educated about what local government really is.”

A proponent of an involved and informed citizenry, Howard said she is interested in establishing in Homer a “citizens academy.” Held once or twice a year, it would be a six-week course with 20 people signing up to learn about local government, department by department.

During Monday’s council meeting, council member Beau Burgess encouraged Castner to make his efforts  “inclusive and reach out to as much of the community as possible. … If the goal is to create consensus, it’s important to be as inclusive as possible.”  

On Tuesday, Castner began the petition process that, if enough signatures are obtained, will put before voters the question, “Shall a charter commission be formed?”

“The petition needs 185 signatures or 15 percent of the voters from the Oct. 1 election. The signatures must be
gathered within 90 days, said Johnson of the Jan. 27 deadline.

“Anybody can go to the clerk’s office and get a packet,” said Castner, hoping others will join the effort to collect the required signatures. 

Once the signatures are collected, the clerk’s office is responsible for verifying the signatures are valid.

“After that’s certified, I would provide a report to the city council and let them know the validity of the petition,” said Johnson. “Then the council would fix a date for submission of nominations of the charter commission candidates.” 

Individuals interested in serving on the charter commission are nominated by individual petitions signed by at least 50 voters.  

Johnson said she didn’t believe a special election would be needed, but that both the question of forming a charter commission and selection of commission members would be done on the same ballot during a regular election.

Once selected, the commission has a year to write a charter to be presented to voters for approval.

“If this is all about me, all about (Espenshade), all about 15 or 20 of us, that’s not going to do it,” said Castner. “Unless city residents embrace this process, it’s not going to work. … It’s got to be an ‘our town’ deal. Not a Kenny Castner deal.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.