Homer has history with home rule

Homer resident Ken Castner recently announced he was launching a petition drive seeking voters support to make Homer a home-rule, rather than a first-class city. This isn’t the first time Homer residents, including Castner, have considered taking this step. 

“Home rule for Homer?’ was the headline of a front page story in the Sept. 4, 1975, Homer News. A trail of articles, editorials, charter drafts, reports from the commission writing those drafts, and letters to the editor ended with the 172-170 defeat of a charter in August 1977. 

First, however, voters had to decide if they wanted to form a commission to write the charter. If approved, a seven-member commission would prepare in a 12-month time frame a home-rule charter or constitution that would have to be approved by voters. Eligibility for the commission included a three-year residency in Homer, 47 signatures supporting each candidate and adherence to the state’s campaign disclosure laws.

“Homer will have ever increasing numbers of problems that are unique to its location and economic base,” wrote A. Robert Hahn, the city attorney at the time, in a memorandum to the council. “The change to a home-rule city will add flexibility and authority to the handling of these situations.”

Five individuals filed as commission candidates: Dr. Paul Eneboe, Nick Gangl, Angelo Hillas, Richard Inglima and Milt Turkington Sr. Needing seven for the commission, the two remaining seats would be decided by write-in campaigns. 

Voters in the Oct. 2, 1975, election agreed 176-125 to form a charter commission. Sam Matthews and Bob Burnett won the write in-campaign.

“It was a group of people really dedicated to getting the best charter we could,” Eneboe recently told the Homer News.

Turkington was elected the commission chair, a meeting schedule was set and the city council approved a $500 budget. The commission invited Richard Garnett, attorney for the municipality of Anchorage, and Frank Reed, chairman of the Anchorage Charter Commission to help the commission begin its work.

The draft charter’s first three articles were published in the Feb. 26, 1976, Homer News. Twenty-one people attended a public meeting March 1 to discuss the draft and expressed concerns about allowing the council to set its own compensation and the three-year residency requirement for office holders. 

In April 1976, another public hearing was held to discuss additional parts of the draft, but no public comments were received.

The three-year residency requirement became a bigger issue when, in June 1976, the city council set a three-year residency requirement for its members. Council member Gary Williams, who also was the Homer News publisher at the time, wouldn’t have a three-year Homer residency until later that summer.  Already having served on the council for two years and his term expiring in 1977, Williams was exempted from the law. However, claiming “reasons of conscience,” he resigned.

“The moral issue has to do with my feeling that, after serving on the council for two years and working pretty hard at it, if I am not now eligible to hold office simply because of the concept of residency — an arguable concept — then I cannot justify in all conscience continuing in that capacity,” Williams said.

At its next meeting, the council voted 4-0 to decline Williams’ resignation. In September 1976, he filed as a candidate for Homer mayor, running against incumbent Hazel Heath and James “Hobo Jim” Varsos.   

Residency was the topic of the Homer News editorial the week following Williams’ resignation. It said, in part, “The place where the change must come is not the city council, however, but the charter commission.”

Residency also was addressed at a public meeting in July 1976. Ken Castner argued the three-year requirement “plays on people’s fears and biases. … Conservatives are afraid hippies will take over and liberals fear oil men will take over.” City council member Erle Cooper favored the requirement, “not just so that a candidate can get to know the city, but so that residents of the area have ample time to get to know a candidate.” Brother Asaiah Bates, a former council member, said he would not object to a one-year requirement, but felt three years was too much.

A final draft of the charter was published on Sept. 23, 1976.

A month later, voters gave the charter a thumbs-down with a vote of 333-194. That gave the commission a year to try again. It began with a questionnaire asking voters why the charter had failed.

In that same election, Williams, who had resigned from the council, was elected Homer’s new mayor. Williams had grown up in the Anchor Point area and lived out of state before returning in 1973.

About the same time, a citizen-led effort began to repeal the city’s three-year residency requirement, replacing it with a one-year requirement. At an October 1976 meeting, in spite of Bates presenting a petition with 124 signatures supporting the repeal, the council chose to hold off taking action until results of the charter commission’s questionnaire were known.

With only 30 percent of the questionnaires received by mid-November, Turkington appealed to voters.

“Statistically, the figures are good, but we need more response,” he said. 

In January 1977, the council voted to change the city’s residency requirement. The new ordinance required one year in Homer and three years in the Homer recording district, with Williams casting the deciding vote. The Homer recording district includes the area surrounding Homer, as far north as Clam Gulch.

Castner spoke out against the change.

“It sets up an elitist pool which our political leaders must come from,” he said. 

With a special election on the charter rewrite scheduled for Aug. 23, 1977, the charter commission began providing reports on its work. Inserted in the Homer News, the reports urged the public to complete the commission’s questionnaires and outlined “noticeable differences” that would take place if the charter were passed. 

“Overall, the proposed charter eliminates red tape and makes city government more efficient and more responsive to the people. The city government must have rules to live by. The charter commission hopes that the proposed charter will become these rules. We feel the charter is an effective, very workable constitution,” the June 1977 report said. 

Results from the questionnaires indicated public education was the commission’s biggest challenge.

“The most outstanding reason was they indicated they had no time to read and study the charter,” said Turkington. “They hadn’t had time to read it so they voted no. … A lot of people said they couldn’t understand the language of the charter, and went on to say many also found the length of it threatening.”

By a July 1977 public hearing on the charter, the residency requirement had been revised to one-year or anything greater set by the council, which, at the time, was still one year in the city and three years in the recording district.

“This we felt was an acceptable solution to a truly thorny problem in which there were a lot of good arguments on both sides,” said Eneboe at the time.

It wasn’t enough for Williams.

“Over-restrictive laws like this, I think, are diametrically opposed to our concept of government, and it seems to me that if the charter commission had its conviction about a one-year requirement, that it wouldn’t be necessary for it to throw it open to change by the council,” he said.

The final draft charter was published for citizen consideration on July 21, 1977.

A week later, in a letter to the editor, Castner argued against the residency requirement, warning, “If the town’s present leaders don’t face it here, they will most likely find themselves in court, defending it there.” 

Adding its voice to the argument, the Citizen Awareness Committee ran an ad in the Aug. 4, 1977, Homer News urging the public to read the charter, particularly the residency section.

In the Aug. 23, 1977, election Homer voters opposed the charter 172-170.

“I’m disappointed, naturally. We put a lot of time into it, because we were directed by the voters. I think voting it down was a mistake,” said Turkington in the Sept. 1, 1977, Homer News. “I also feel there was misinformation about it put out by the charter’s opponents. But almost 50 percent of the voters thought it was all right.”

Pressing the residency issue, Ken Castner in September 1977 filed a suit against the city in Superior Court. The suit asked that the residency ordinance be declared unconstitutional. In spite of having only resided in Homer for 30 days, Castner also asked that his name be placed on the October ballot as a candidate for city council. Superior Court Judge James A. Hanson upheld the one-year-in-the-city portion, but avoided ruling on the constitutionality of the three-year requirement.

At a city council meeting the end of September 1977, the council decided to place the residency requirement before voters in the October election. Voters would be asked if they preferred a one-year residency requirement, a three-year requirement or the existing city ordinance requiring one year within the city limits and three years within the Homer Recording District. 

Castner appealed his the Superior Court’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court on the grounds the judge had not resolved the three-year question. The appeal also questioned the constitutionality of a one-year requirement.

In the October election, Homer voters approved a one-year residency requirement by a 98-vote margin. In November, the council officially made the voter-directed change. 

Currently, to be eligible for office in the city, an individual is required to be a resident within the city for a period of one year immediately preceding the election on which the individual is a candidate.   

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

More petitions available for signing now

A total of 12 petition booklets have been picked up to gather signatures of individuals interested in giving voters the choice of turning Homer into a home-rule, rather than first-class, city, according to Jo Johnson, Homer city clerk. The effort, led by Ken Castner and Ginny Espinshade, requires 185 Homer voter signatures, or 15 percent of those voting in the Oct. 1 election, in order to be placed on the ballot. The 90-day time limit for gathering the signatures ends Jan. 27.