Two new members were sworn onto the Homer City Council during the body’s Monday meeting, and council members unanimously voted to certify the full results of the Oct. 1 municipal election.
What remains in question, though, is the eligibility of one new council member, Storm Hansen-Cavasos. Former council member Tom Stroozas, who ran for re-election and lost, filed an affidavit with the City Clerk’s office and is contesting the election after accusations that Hansen-Cavasos did not live within Homer city limits for a full year before the election came to light.
Before voting to certify the election Monday, the council also unanimously voted to call for an investigation into the eligibility of Hansen-Cavasos based on her residency. Homer City Code sets out a process for what happens when an election is contested. When an investigation is called for, it is conducted by the city manager with assistance from the city clerk and city attorney. The “investigating officials” will report back to the council with what they find, at which point the council “shall determine whether grounds for the contest were valid,” according to a memo from City Clerk Melissa Jacobsen to the council included in the meeting materials.
Since Stroozas was the one who formally contested the election, he was not allowed to vote on whether to call for an investigation and had to leave the room while the council discussed it.
During a public comment period at Monday’s meeting, Cassie Lawver told the council that it was she who “started” the effort to look into Hansen-Cavasos’ residency eligibility. Lawver said she only found out what the requirements were for running for city council after the election. Lawver began hearing from people who claimed Hansen-Cavasos did not live within city limits for a full year before the election, and began gathering signatures for an affidavit to file with the city.
Then, Stroozas heard of her efforts and volunteered to file the affidavit and pay a $750 bond to cover the costs of the complaint, Lawver said.
Community members who claim Hansen-Cavasos did not meet the residency requirement for running for city council allege she lived at a Rolling Meadows address outside of city limits as late as this summer. Some submitted screenshots of Facebook posts and conversations they had via Facebook messenger they claim show she lived at an address in Fritz Creek, several miles out East End Road.
Hansen-Cavasos’ lawyer, however, maintains that her client lived within city limits for the necessary amount of time before filing to run for city council. In a letter to the council, attorney Libby Bakalar asserts that Hansen-Cavasos did lease a home outside city limits on Rolling Meadows Road with her husband. When the couple separated in May 2018, Bakalar writes, Hansen-Cavasos moved back in with her mother at an address on Mission Road, which is inside city limits. Hansen-Cavasos then moved to an address on Rangeview Avenue, also within city limits, Bakalar wrote. The Rangeview Avenue address is the one Hansen-Cavasos used on her candidate form.
“Although we do not yet have the full documentation filed in support of the election contest, my client believes that the effort to discredit her residency is based on neighbors’ hearsay that she recently resided at (the) Rolling Meadows (address) —several undrivable family vehicles were parked there, and the children were seen there fetching belongings they needed to retrieve,” Bakalar wrote. “Also, during the last few months, Ms. Hansen-Cavasos has visited the Rolling Meadows property several times in order to mow the lawn and engage in the emotionally difficult task of sorting through her marital belongings.”
Many community members gave testimony to the council about the issue before the vote on Monday, packing the city council chambers so that it was standing room only.
Connor Schmidt, who tried running for city council in the last election but was disqualified because he did not update his voter registration to an address within city limits in time, urged people to respect the process.
“As someone who attempted to run for city council last year and was thoroughly vetted by the system, while I was severely disappointed at the phone call where I was told that I was not within city limits for my voting registration … I do believe that our city clerk does a fantastic job of thoroughly vetting these candidates for their documents,” he said. “And I think that that should be respected.”
Homer resident Ginny Espenshade said contested elections have a tendency to expose the divides within a community.
“It’s my hope and plea to you all and people here in the audience, people listening on the radio, that as a community we meet this challenge with our best qualities of our community, and not the worst,” she said. “Can we please respect each other? Respect people that are willing to serve on this body and run for it? Respect the process? Respect our city employees?”
Some urged the council to certify the full election and follow the process set out in city code, while others questioned whether it would be a good idea to allow a candidate onto the council to start making decisions and voting when that person’s eligibility is being questioned.
That’s where Michael Gatti, the city’s new legal counsel, came in. Attending his very first council meeting as city attorney, Gatti answered questions for the council about the investigation process.
If the investigation shows that Hansen-Cavasos was indeed ineligible to run for city council, she will be removed from the council and there will be a vacancy. Homer city code stipulates that the council appoint a replacement, who would serve until the next municipal election in October 2020. During that election, the public would vote for someone to fill that seat for a 2-year term, in order to maintain the staggered seating on the council.
Hansen-Cavasos will not participate in the investigation when evidence is brought back before the council. When evaluating the results of the investigation, the council will be acting as a quasi judicial body, Gatti explained.
“A quasi judicial proceeding is one where due process is afforded to the participants,” he said. “And so that means the hearing has to be fair not only in fact and in appearance. So when you conduct a hearing, you have to make sure that there’s information provided to the pubic, and that the investigation is conducted in public.”
Gatti explained that the council members, because they will be acting as a quasi judicial body, will not be able to talk to their constituents about the investigation outside the context of the investigation process.