Roads, the recall, taxes, business and budgets dominated discussion at two Homer City Council candidate forums held the past two weeks. On Sept. 21, KBBI Public Radio and Homer News reporters moderated a meeting at Kachemak Bay Campus. On Sept. 28 at the Homer Elks Lodge, the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center sponsored another forum.
Seven candidates are running for two, 3-year open seats now held by retiring council members David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds. In order of how they will appear on the ballot are Sarah Vance, Kimberly Ketter, Caroline Venuti, Rachel Lord, Stephen M. Mueller, Dwayne G. Nustvold Jr. and Andrew Kita. Anne Poso also is listed on the ballot, but she is not actively campaigning.
Election day is Tuesday, Oct., with polls open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
At the Sept. 21 forum, candidates took written or spoken questions from the audience or from the media. Some questions probed how the potential council members might do their jobs, while others looked at how they would make economic decisions. In one question, they were asked how they would react to something they might not personally support.
Mueller had a prior family commitment and did not attend that forum, but did attend the Sept. 28 event.
“Whether or not I agree individually, the council will reach some kind of consensus or compromise,” said Kita.
“If I don’t agree with something, I’m going to learn more about it. With the council, that is the ultimate question: ‘Is it going to be good for the entire community?’” said Vance.
“I’ll listen to public testimony … I’m going to vote for the majority of what people want,” Ketter said.
“It’s important to ask questions, but not what’s in front of you and what you see, but ask questions about the larger context … Few things are black and white,” Lord said.
“What I have found in my life on earth is we have more in common than differences. What you look for is commonality,” Venuti said.
A question by Homer News reporter Megan Pacer looked at the recall issue. She asked if the candidates agree with the council passing a resolution asking the Alaska Municipal League and the Alaska Legislature to revise the recall statutes. Lord, Ketter and Kita said they supported that resolution.
Lord mentioned her work on a derelict vessel task force and how she saw state statutes often needed updating.
“In a lot of cases our state statutes were written a long time ago and haven’t been looked at,” she said. “The law is only as good as it’s written. If it leaves a lot on the table, it’s not helpful.”
“Seeing our community torn apart based on feelings — those statutes are pretty lose if they can be based on feelings,” Ketter said.
“I think it’s a good decision to pass on to the Alaska Municipal League to look at it. Certainly it’s very murky. There’s room for interpretation,” Venuti said.
“It’s a good thing we’re taking a longer look to see if it still applies to the current times,” Kita said.
Vance and Nustvold both supported the recall.
“I signed that petition. I’d be a real hypocrite if I wanted to change it while I’m running for office,” Nustvold said.
As spokesperson for the pro-recall group Heartbeat of Homer, Vance said it should be no surprise she opposes reconsidering the recall statutes.
“I agree with our Founding Fathers of our nation who believe a recall was part of our public process,” she said. “I think it’s important that we leave it to the people to interpret what they think is important.”
At last Thursday’s chamber forum, Mueller also spoke about the recall. If elected, he said a major priority would be the continued healing from the attempt to remove Homer City Council members Donna Aderhold, David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds. The recall failed by 56 percent “no” votes for Reynolds and 57 percent for Aderhold and Lewis.
An ethics complaint challenging certification of the election was filed by Heartbeat of Homer but was dismissed because Vance, acting as spokeperson for the pro-recall organization, released the complaint to KBBI Public Radio. Larry Zaccaro, another recall supporter, filed a similar complaint that Aderhold, Lewis and Reynolds chose to make public.
“Homer as a community is pretty torn apart, and I really expected, once the dust had settled from the recall, that we’d say, ‘OK, this is done. Let’s all come together as Homer and help Homer become the best it can be,’” Mueller said. “And it’s not happening yet. There’s still a lot of hurt, there’s still a lot of healing that needs to occur to make it happen.”
One economic question looked at a perceived problem: young people can’t find good jobs in Homer and have moved away. Lord, Venuti and Vance both said that’s a false perception.
“There are people coming back. There are a lot of people making creative ways for ends to meet,” Lord said.
Venuti, a longtime teacher, said the myth has the danger of being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Someone built a list of people who have come back here. They have their own businesses. They’re working in the food industry. I run into my students continually. They’re here,” she said.
“There are so many opportunities for children for families of all ages. This is an incredibly vibrant community,” Vance said.
Kita noted that with things like the closing of the Boys and Girls Club children don’t have a lot here to experience what they could be.
“If you’re a young person or you are an adult, I would encourage you to see more of the world. Homer’s not going anywhere. You can always come back,” he said.
“There needs to be more opportunity for young people to get a job. They’re just barely scraping by,” Nustvold said.
“I agree with Dwayne. There needs to be some more innovative services offered,” Ketter said.
Homer Saw & Cycle co-owner Claire Waxman asked the candidates what they would do to raise more revenue and keep businesses in town.
“There’s no question that the city of Homer and the state of Alaska are facing tough economic times right now. As far as what are we going to do to raise revenues … Having a city where people want to live so when you move to Homer you want to live here,” Lord said.
“People have to see the city as a great place to live. That means we have to look at new subdivisions — carefully planned subdivisions,” Venuti said.
“I think this is a question most businesses are asking. One thing we can do is change the attitude some people have toward businesses in Homer,” Vance said. “One of the answers for helping business grow is limited government.”
Vance also said she was shocked to hear from someone they don’t shop retail in Homer at all. “We have people coming to Homer to shop. There is a disconnect,” she said.
“Part of my attitude is if you can’t get it at Ulmer’s you don’t need it,” Kita said.
Nustvold reiterated a position he’s been taking in the campaign: make Homer a container shipping port for the Kenai Peninsula.
“I would like to see a distribution dock that would lower prices in Homer,” he said.
At the chamber forum, Mueller also spoke about expanding Homer’s economy.
“I’m actually looking out from my seat at the economic engine of the region — it’s the Homer Spit, and a lot of it’s involved with the harbor. There’s a lot of plans to step up what happens at the harbor,” he said. “The amount of new business, the amount of new jobs that could be generated by tapping into what is available to us — we’re blessed that we’ve got a 4.5 mile stretch of sand that goes out to a wonderful harbor, and the economic growth that would be available through that is just unbelievable.”
Another question asked how the city could get nonresidents to pay more for services like the library or community recreation.
“We do charge sales tax. That goes right to the city. I can’t really imagine another way,” Kita said.
“The sales tax has been the most reasonable way to level the playing field as far as what’s fair,” Vance said. “I’m open to ways and suggestions to address this that would be reasonable for all.”
“I’m not sure how you would do this,” Nustvold said.
“I support a bed tax. If I travel anywhere else in Alaska I have to pay to use their services,” Ketter said.
Lord noted that the lower peninsula has about 15,000 people, about 5,000 of whom live in the city.
“I don’t know that the city has other levers to use there. … There are other areas that have service areas. That’s a borough question,” she said.
Venuti said she appreciated how nonresidents support local fundraisers and volunteer in city nonprofits.
“We have to agree some people are going to pay more for city services because they live in the city limits. We can annex all those guys to join us all,” she said.
At the chamber forum, where annexation also came up, Mueller expressed caution. He said he lives in an area of West Hill that had been annexed in 2002 and still doesn’t have city water.
“I think that there are some of us that have just been told that until it’s time that they’re able to provide those services, that we just have to sit and wait, and I don’t know if I’m necessarily against further annexation, if it makes sense for Homer, happening before I get my water,” he said.
The Homer News also asked a question bouncing off of Dar Williams’ book, “What I Found In a Thousand Towns,” where Williams writes about how big community projects bridge social and cultural groups. What projects do the candidates imagine to do that?
Lord cited the Homer Playground Project and the Woodard Creek Trail as good examples.
“Every time the city sits at a table and participates and listens and engages, like the Green Dot, looking to ways we can positively impact others in the community is critically important. I think we are rich in that in Homer. I think it’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t cost the city money and makes us a vibrant place,” Lord said.
Ketter mentioned her experience living in Pennsylvania and how people had open land to recreate that got lost to people moving in with money and taking the land.
“It changed everything. It ruined a lot of different demographics and types of people,” she said.
“Community projects are really enriching. I’ve been involved in a volunteer fire department. You get involved in your own little world and get in a place like that, it just opens up. You meet new people, get out of your comfort zone,” Nustvold said.
“One of the things that we can do to bridge groups through community projects is a homeless shelter. It’s a highly controversial subject, but it is something that is a great concern to the community,” Vance said.
“I’ve been involved in community projects,” Kita said. “Every time I’ve ever done something like that, I always walk away with a smile on my face and high fives all around.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org and Megan Pacer at email@example.com.