Hansen-Cavasos retains seat on council following election investigation

A Homer City Council member whose residency qualifications were called into question after she won election to the body earlier this month will retain her seat on the council.

Members of the council voted 4-1 in a special meeting on Monday to uphold their certification of Storm Hansen-Cavasos’ election after reviewing a report from an investigation into the election and her claims of residency within the city of Homer. Tom Stroozas, a former council member who did not win re-election, contested the election and claimed she did not live within the city for a full year before the election as required. Stroozas filed the election contest on behalf of some area residents who were already planning to, but who do not live within city limits.

New council members Joey Evensen and Hansen-Cavasos were sworn in when the council certified the election at its Oct. 14 meeting.

Council members said they voted to uphold Hansen-Cavasos’ election to the council after reviewing the findings of an investigation carried out by City Manager Katie Koester with assistance from City Clerk Melissa Jacobsen, and the city attorney. Heath Smith was the lone no vote. Hansen-Cavasos could not be a part of the vote and was not in the room for the deliberation.

In taking this action, the council acted as a quasi-judicial body. According to the investigation report and findings, that means the council had to make its decision based on a preponderance of evidence. A preponderance of evidence means that something is more than likely — at least 51% — to be true. That was the standard the council used in deciding Hansen-Cavasos was a legal city resident. Conversely, if the council thought the investigation report showed it was “more than likely” that Hansen-Cavasos was not a resident of the city for the time she said she was, they would have had to have voted not to uphold their certification of her election to the council.

In voting not to uphold her election to the council, Smith said he felt the process relied too much on intent and not enough on facts and evidence. He lamented that he would have liked to have seen more data or evidence regarding Hansen-Cavasos’ residence in the report itself.

“Intent is one thing that it talks about, but it also talks about plausibility,” Smith said. “It talks about the facts. And, you know, we have to base our decision on facts. … We cannot say, because she claimed so, it is so. We have to have some facts that back up her claimed intent.”

Evensen also spoke to the issue of intent.

“Someone’s intent, it seems to me like that’s difficult to define for somebody else,” he said. “That everyone gets the right to define their intent for themselves.”

Council member Donna Aderhold said she believes the neighbors and people who brought forward claims in the form of sworn affidavits did so in good faith. She said the council’s vote was not invalidating anyone on either side of the issue.

“I believe that those who brought this issue forward did so with all intent and honesty,” she said. “And wanting to bring forward a concern that they have based on their observations. And I also don’t believe that anything council member Hansen-Cavasos said actually refutes anything that anybody else has said, other than did she consider that location her residence.”

The crux of the argument was that neighbors of Hansen-Cavasos’ rented home outside of city limits claimed they saw evidence of her living there full time, such as cars parked there and children playing outside. This was within a year of the election.

Hansen-Cavasos, in her sworn affidavit, explained that she moved back into town with her mother to a Mission Road address in the summer of 2018, according to the investigation report. She changed her voter registration address to a Rangeview Drive address in August 2019, more than 30 days before the election.

According to Alaska state code, “The address of a voter as it appears on the official voter registration record is presumptive evidence of the person’s voting residence.”

It was not in dispute that Hansen-Cavasos changed her voter registration address in time for the election. Those who submitted testimony contesting her residency claimed they saw evidence that she did not live permanently within city limits for a full year before the election. Hansen-Cavasos in her sworn affidavit said that she or her children would sometimes stay at the rented home outside of city limits as she separated from her husband and had to sort through their belongings there. The lease was kept and rent continued to be paid for it because the family was not sure whether Hansen-Cavaos’ husband would need a place to stay when he returned from work out of state, she wrote in her affidavit.

According to Homer City Code, “A change of address is made only by the act of removal joined with the intent to remain in another place.”

Those who claim Hansen-Cavasos violated candidacy requirements did not believe she ever actually removed herself from the out-of-town address off East End Road. The council’s vote shows the majority believed it was more than likely she had removed herself and was residing full time within city limits, with occasional visits to the East End Road area home.

Stroozas expressed his disappointment in the outcome to his former council members during the special meeting’s public comment period.

“What this body has just done is demonstrated lawlessness,” he said. “You folks have negated Alaska statutes that have rules for determining the residence of a voter.”

It is noted in the summary report to the council on the investigation, however, that because Homer is a first-class city, its code and rules for running elections take precedence over state code in that regard.

Some members of the public brought up in their comments that an affidavit from Hansen-Cavasos’ mother was accepted on Oct. 22, one day after a deadline of Oct. 21 had been set for evidence to be submitted. City Clerk Melissa Jacobsen explained that the city manager had the ability to request oral interviews with those who submitted written testimony, or others as deemed necessary.

It was determined Hansen-Cavasos’ mother was someone the investigation team wanted to hear from, she said. Hansen-Cavasos’s mother was asked to come in for an oral interview but wasn’t available for the day they were scheduled on Oct. 23. So, an affidavit was accepted from her on Oct. 22 in lieu of an interview, Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen also posted on a web page made specifically for the investigation stating that the investigative team had asked Hansen-Cavasos’ mother for an interview and that it had accepted an affidavit in its place. She made that post on Oct. 23.

Jill Hockema, one of the former neighbors of Hansen-Cavasos who lives outside Homer limits and provided testimony for the investigation, said she felt like the council’s vote in essence called her a liar.

“Tonight I feel like you all said I was a liar along with my husband and other people that lived in that neighborhood,” Hockema said. “… I know what I saw. I know where she lived, and it’s just really disheartening that you would say what you said.”

City resident Ron Keffer said he appreciated the way the council handled the investigation and deliberation.

“I’m really pleased to see a council that takes such things very seriously,” he said. “That goes through the proper procedures, that considers the evidence in the way they ought to and then reaches a reasonable conclusion. And all council persons did just that a reached a conclusion. … So there was no lawlessness, no lack of process.”

During council comments at the end of the meeting Hansen-Cavasos thanked the council for their patience and for having her on the council.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

This article has been updated to correct a typo to reflect that Storm Hansen-Cavasos changed her voter registration address in August 2019.