Home-rule petitions go to city

Hours ahead of Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, Ken Castner and Ginny Espenshade submitted to the city petitions with what they believe are enough signatures to ask voters to weigh in on whether Homer should be a home-rule city.

In November, Castner and Espenshade took their interest in turning Homer into a home-rule city to the public with the petition effort. They needed 185 signatures, 15 percent of the voters in the Oct. 1 election. They also needed to meet a 5 p.m. Jan. 27 deadline. 

“We turned it in about noon and we had 224 (signatures) and there were 25 we couldn’t verify,” said Castner of work he and Espenshade did to weed out signatures of non-registered city voters.

Helping with the effort were 10 individuals, some of them obtaining from Homer City Clerk Jo Johnson more than one petition booklet. A total of 14 booklets were returned with signatures.

“Right now we’re in the process of verifying the signatures, ensuring that signers are registered voters that reside within the city,” said Johnson, who has 10 days to complete the task and respond. “I expect we’ll be done early next week with the verification process.”

Once the verification process is complete, Johnson will notify the city council.

“I expect at the time I let them know, they’ll decide when the candidacy period will be open for commissioners,” said Johnson of the process for selecting a commission that will have a year to draft a charter to be placed before voters. 

A minimum of seven commissioners is needed. Individuals interested in serving on the commission also must gather at least 50 signatures for a petition supporting their candidacy. 

Castner said the public’s interest has been obvious.

“There were a couple of people who just said give me the damn thing and I’ll sign it, but mostly, every one took a minimum of four to five minutes of talk,” he said of the time it took to gather the 115 signatures he collected. “People want to know what this might do.”

He also was clear this is just one step in a long process.

“There are lots of stops along the way and lots of work,” he said.

In October, Castner said he supported changing Homer to a home-rule city because it “means that we can write our own constitution, establish how we operate as a city, how our government operates, how we cooperate with nongovernment operations.”

Now, having gathered signatures to put that change before voters, Castner said, “I am more determined. I think we need to put some sideboards around how our government works and what the rights of the people are in involving themselves in major decisions. Most of my criticisms (of the city of Homer) come with lack of public comment opportunity and voting opportunity on things that are going to affect the community far into the future. There are lots of decisions being made without citizen involvement.”

Obtaining the required number of signatures doesn’t necessarily equate to support of home-rule, but does illustrate interest and the need for a better understanding of the subject, according to Espenshade.

“The strange thing about this process is that it required at least some advocacy before there was education and that’s counter to what I think is good,” said Espenshade. “I got some really good questions from people I asked to sign it and that got me to look at it and, until I feel confident I can answer those questions, I didn’t want to be persuading.”

Espenshade even views the informal discussions she has had as helpful.

“Discussing about whether or not this would be a good process, we can identify some of the issues propelling it and if there are other ways to make the public feel more listened to,” she said.

Castner agreed with the need for more education.

“I think there has to be education for all of us because this has never been done this way, there’s really no model to look at,” he said of a citizen-led, rather than city-led effort. “I’m hoping the city will provide some space on the web for kind of a blogging discussion.”

The option of home rule first became available to Alaska cities with statehood 1959. According to information prepared by the Local Boundary Commission, home rule cities in Alaska include: Cordova, charter adopted in 1960; Fairbanks, charter adopted in 1960; Kenai, charter adopted 1963; Ketchikan, charter adopted 1960; Kodiak, charter adopted 1965; Nenana, charter adopted 1982; North Pole, charter adopted 1970; Palmer, charter adopted 1962; Petersburg, charter adopted 1960; Seward, charter adopted 1960; Valdez, charter adopted 1961; Wrangell; charter adopted 1960.

Under current law, first class cities may adopt home rule charters. There also are eight home rule boroughs in Alaska. 

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.