Residents in person and at home were given the chance to see candidates for local elected positions weigh in on questions relevant to Homer during a candidate forum last Thursday.
Held by the Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, the forum was open to the public at Land’s End Resort, but with limited, spaced out seating as a COVID-19 precaution. The forum was also streamed live on the chamber’s website and was simultaneously broadcast on KBBI Public Radio.
Candidates were given the chances for opening and closing statements, with questions asked by Chamber Executive Director Brad Anderson in between. Topics of conversation focused mainly on economic development, and also included questions about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, city infrastructure like the Homer Harbor, affordable housing (mostly for seasonal workers) and the city budget.
Anderson said the questions came from members of the public, who were invited to submit them through the chamber.
Homer City Council member Donna Aderhold is running for the position of Homer mayor, and Mayor Ken Castner is running for reelection. There are two seats open on the city council with four candidates running for them — current council member Caroline Venuti, current council member Rachel Lord, and residents George Hall and Raymond Walker. The two candidates who receive the most votes will be elected to the seats.
The forum between Castner and Aderhold came first during the event. Castner pitched himself as a numbers guy and a “right now” guy who has worked in his first term as mayor to bring city finances and financial policy in line to be more clear and easy to report.
Aderhold stressed fostering a place for the sharing of ideas from everyone in the city, saying she would want to create a space for diverse public dialogue in the council chambers.
Asked what the opportunities are for increasing city revenues, both Aderhold and Castner answered that the city is actually in a relatively healthy place financially despite the pandemic, and said increasing revenues is not something the city needs to be concerned about in the immediate future.
“We’re going to need to make some adjustments as we go along,” Aderhold said of the budget. “City council has already done that, in some respect by saying if there are things that are in the budget that we don’t need to do, don’t do them right now until we know what this looks like. So once the third quarter numbers come in we’ll have a chance to really reassess and ask ‘what does 2020 look like? How do we need to adjust the 2020 budget?’ And then also look ahead at the current 2021 budget and say what needs to change there? … Based on the reserves that the city has … I am not seeing at this point in time any need for any additional revenues.”
“We have a $4 million emergency fund, and we have not taken one dollar out of that fund,” he said. “If push comes to shove, we can always tap into the fund and we can recover the money back into it over the course of time. I’m not in a panic either as far as feeling like we’re going to go broke for any reason.”
Asked what their stances were on using the mayoral ability to break a tied vote on the city council, Aderhold answered that she would use that power, though she said it is always better if a council can come to a majority consensus on its own.
“I will say that, on most things, the city council — in my time on council, the five years I’ve been there — actually most things are unanimous,” she said. “And occasionally we’ll have a 5-1 vote or a 4-2 vote. And then sometimes there will be a tie breaking vote, and I think that it is a good responsibility of the mayor to not just let something fail just because it was a 3-3 tie.”
Castner, who ran on a platform that included not breaking tie votes, explained that after having done so twice for what he felt were valid reasons since becoming mayor, he received push back and has stopped the practice. He said he would not break ties going forward.
Both Castner and Aderhold said they support the city moving forward on an expansion project at the harbor’s deep water dock. Aderhold said the hope is to get the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the state to put some funding toward paying for studies that will advance the project.
“It’s probably not going to be constructed during my time as an elected official in Homer,” she said.
Castner said a harbor expansion is “what everybody wants.” There’s demand for more room as the small boat harbor becomes overcrowded, he said.
“But I worry about the fiscal capacity that we have right now,” he said of the city. “It’s a huge project — $120 to $140 million — and we just closed out a whole bunch of projects in the fall that had been left open for years and years and years, so until the city kind of gets the way that they do business, the way that they put projects out on the street and then get projects closed needs to be really, really improved if they think that they’re going to attract that kind of investment into town.”
City council forum
When it came time for the city council forum, the questions were structured differently so as to include more of them, with only two candidates answering each question instead of all four candidates. For example, a question would be asked of candidate Lord, and the candidate next in line at the table would be asked the same question. Then for the next question, Anderson started with the second person who answered the last question, and so on.
Asked what the city can do to promote economic development, Lord said the best way for the city to help is to ask local businesses what they need. She referenced a survey done by the city’s Economic Development Commission which identified local taxpaying businesses and assessing their needs.
Lord referenced maintaining a stable workforce as one issue that affects economic growth in Homer. Affordable housing for workers, both seasonal and year round, is important, Lord said, but the city’s role in affordable housing should be as a partner at the table, she added.
“So on an issue such as affordable housing, there are things that we can do within our zoning code,” she said. “There are certain things we can do to help move that needle. I don’t think that the city is the best leader in kind of paving that path forward.”
Weighing in on the same issue, Hall said the Homer Spit is the “engine that drives the city of Homer, period.”
“Everything on Pioneer, everything on Lake Street is driven by what goes on on the Spit,” he said. “And I think that the best way to develop the economy in Homer and to develop jobs — which is a really big thing with me — is to do anything we can to focus on the deep water port, the small boat harbor, and anything else that we can do.”
Asked about the importance of the marine trades in Homer, both Hall and Walker said the industry is vital to the city’s economy.
“I would encourage them and help them grow, and I believe that they are also very much in favor of anything that we can do with respect to the deep water port,” Hall said.
“I believe that the biggest part of our community is tied to the Spit, tied to fishing in one way or the other,” Walker said. “That is a natural resource that God dropped in our lap, and if we don’t expand that, push that to the limits, it’ll go by the wayside.”
Asked whether they supported full funding for the Homer Police Department, both Walker and Venuti said they do.
“We just built them a new police station for crying out loud. Why wouldn’t I support the police?” Walker said. “Blue lives matter. Matter of fact, all lives matter. And I would fully support those guys and the first responders in every way necessary.”
“I believe that adequate funding for our police force and first responders is very, very important,” Venuti said. “They are doing a really good job keeping us safe. They have a wonderful rapport with the young people in our community.”
Another question addressed an action that’s already been taken by city residents — the vote to ban the use of certain kinds of thin, single-use plastic bags in 2019. Anderson asked Lord and Hall what their stance on banning single-use plastic bags is.
“My stance is that the people of Homer voted for that,” Lord said. “So that was something that came before the voters in the last couple years that was passed by the people of Homer. … I support and uphold the will of the voters.”
Hall said he believes an issue like whether single-use plastic bags will be available within city limits should be left up to personal responsibility.
“This was a great example of where personal responsibility should trump government telling you what to do,” he said.
Asked specifically about the deep water dock and proposed harbor expansion, both Venuti and Lord said they support development there.
“I really do believe the need to develop on the deep water dock, that would accommodate a large Coast Guard ship, particularly, continues,” Venuti said.
She noted what an important part of the community the U.S. Coast Guard plays in Homer.
“I’m not saying it’ll happen tomorrow, but I think we need to move forward on it,” Venuti said.
As someone who works for the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators, Lord said work on the Homer Harbor is near and dear to her heart.
“It’s something where the city has been very proactive on the large vessel harbor expansion,” she said. “… The large harbor expansion is a very large project. This is not a project that the city can go into alone, and it is not something that’s going to happen quickly. It is something that a lot of time has gone into already and we continue to jump through.”
In-person absentee voting is currently available at Homer City Hall, Monday through Friday during normal business hours. This runs through Oct. 5. Election day is Oct. 6.