Candidates for Homer City Council gathered Monday in the Homer Public Library to talk about their bid for public office and issues facing city voters as part of a candidate forum hosted by the Peninsula Clarion, KDLL 91.9 FM and KBBI 890 AM public radio.
The forum, hosted in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Homer Public Library, was the fifth of eight being held throughout September heading into the Oct. 3 municipal election.
Over the course of about an hour, candidates fielded questions from forum moderators Ashlyn O’Hara, the Peninsula Clarion’s government and education reporter, and Kathleen Gustafson, host and producer at KBBI.
Participating in Thursday’s forum were incumbent city council members Rachel Lord and Caroline Venuti, as well as Daniel Hasche and Joni Wise. Homer City Council members serve three-year terms.
Rachel Lord, who has served on the Homer City Council since 2017, owns Alaska Stems, a flower farm and shop in Homer, and has previously served on the Homer Economic Development Commission, the Homer Farmers Market Board of Directors and the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust Board of Directors.
Caroline Venuti, who has also served on the Homer City Council since 2017, taught in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for 30 years and now works as the Learning Resource Center coordinator at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kachemak Bay Campus.
Joni Wise is a former employee of Homer Middle School and West Homer Elementary School who is now an Indian Child Welfare Act worker with the Seldovia Village Tribe and a Guardian Ad Litem for the State of Alaska. She is also the financial manager at Wise Electric and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Daniel Hasche has a background in construction and tourism and has lived in Homer for six years. He describes himself as fiscally conservative and has said preservation of grassland on the Homer Spit, regulating bed and breakfasts and promoting the city are among the issues that are important to him.
In response to news last week that the City of Homer will have to put up more money for the long-awaited expansion of the Homer harbor, candidates offered different takes.
Hasche said the city should ensure that it has the infrastructure to accommodate the influx of new visitors such an expansion should bring, while Venuti said its as much a public safety need as it is a need for a city experiencing commercial growth. Wise said she didn’t have any concrete ideas regarding fundraising, and Lord said the expansion, while needed, will be a slow process.
“I know there’s been a lot of energy and excitement about it happening now and a lot of feeling like there’s all this federal money with these infrastructure bills … but at the end of the day, I mean, a large project like this is going to have a longer timeline,” Lord said. “We are really out of the starting gate of it and when it comes, we and our federal partners need to be on board.”
More than one candidate expressed concerns about how the city should regulate e-bike use in the city, particularly regarding a transportation plan on which the City of Homer is currently soliciting public comment.
Venuti said regulation of electric bicycles is something that the city has discussed, including whether or not any motorized vehicles should be allowed on city trails. Hasche said that electronic bikes are motorized and should therefore potentially have their own lanes such that they do not obstruct pedestrians.
“I think that needs to be addressed,” Hasche said. “These things can be 35 miles an hour and they are motorized vehicles.”
Lord said more generally that, when it comes to transportation, she’d like to see Homer shift away from a model that puts cars and vehicles first, noting that she wants to be able to travel safely by foot with her children or while running.
“I think that’s one of my biggest goals, looking at the transportation plan of the city moving forward in terms of movement infrastructure, is making it be accessible to all people and all modes of transportation and trying to at least shift a bit away from (being) fully car-centric and making sure that it’s a safe place,” Lord said.
On the topic of Homer’s lack of affordable housing, Venuti said it can be a difficult problem to talk about because the word “affordable” can mean different things to different people. Lord said she’s had employees who struggle to find affordable housing in Homer, and said the city “absolutely” has a role in helping address the problem, whether through planning and zoning regulations or limiting short-term rentals.
Hasche called a lack of affordable housing “the biggest problem in Homer right now.”
“As far as the BNBs go, maybe put a cap on that or incentivize in-state residents instead of the out-of-state people,” Hasche said.
Wise said the city should pursue balance with regulating short-term rentals and residential structures that are used for business purposes.
“Those things are concerning to me, not because I don’t think that it’s everybody’s right to sell their house and do what they want to do with it,” Wise said. “That is their right as a citizen of Homer or a citizen of the United States. However, we do have to figure out how to get to a place where we’re not overinflating these houses.”
On the topic of the city budget, Hasche said he’d like to see the city spend money on anything that helps promote tourism, while Wise said she would take a fiscally conservative approach that was informed by input from city staff. Venuti and Lord pointed to deferred city maintenance projects that are eating away at some city finances, with Venuti emphasizing the costly nature of updating the city’s fleet of vehicles.
“If anybody has purchased one car, imagine replacing all of our police cars, or all of our fire trucks … you can’t do it at once,” Venuti said.
Candidates were also asked about their vision for the future of the Homer Education and Recreation Complex, or HERC, buildings, which have long been known to be contaminated with hazardous material.
Hasche said Homer should look to other cities, like Fairbanks. Lord said the city is making slow progress on the project, while Venuti said the longer it takes for demolition work to begin, the more hazardous material and work the city is going to find.
Wise said the city has been talking about the HERC buildings for years with little actual action taken.
“I would like to see … the council, the people in charge, those who are able to make these decisions … make the decisions and stick with the plan and go for it,” Wise said. “I see a lot of a lot of talk, a lot of questions, a lot of studies and not a lot of movement on certain areas. I’d like to see some more definitive things.”
Candidates had different opinions on what they think contributes to a high quality of life in Homer. Hasche pointed to the tourism industry and local arts scene as among Homer’s strengths, while Wise and Lord emphasized the city’s rich community fabric. Venuti pointed to the city’s local businesses and said she’s a big proponent of shopping local.
“I’m so happy that Pioneer businesses — I see the same people there all the time, same workers, same dedication of service,” Venuti said. “I encourage everyone to shop locally because I think that is the beauty of this town is that we do support the town.”
Candidates also talked about how the city helps communicate emergency notifications and were given the opportunity to make opening and closing statements during Monday’s forum.
Monday’s full candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page, on KDLL’s website at kdll.org or on KBBI’s website at kbbi.org. The next forum will be held on Thursday, Sept. 21 at the Seward Community Library and will feature candidates for Seward City Council.
Election Day is Oct. 3 and absentee in-person voting started on Sept. 18.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.