Ordinance to compel mayor to break ties fails at Homer council meeting

An ordinance that would have compelled the mayor to use his ability to vote in the case of a tie did not make it past the introduction phase at Monday’s Homer City Council meeting.

Sponsored by council member Rachel Lord, the ordinance sought to change language in city code from “may” to “shall,” to stipulate that, when there is a tied vote between the six council members, the mayor must use his power to cast a tie-breaking vote. A motion to introduce the ordinance failed in a 4-2 vote and will not advance to a public hearing and first reading.

Lord said she met with Mayor Ken Castner a few weeks prior to bringing the resolution forward to speak with him about it. Her decision stems, she said, from when Castner cast a tie breaking vote in March to pass an ordinance he had sponsored that allowed the city to extend water services outside city limits when a development company offered to pay a $100,000 service extension fee. Castner had run for mayor on a platform that included the claim that he would never use his tie-breaking option during city meetings. He told the Homer News in a September 2018 article, “I will not break a tie. There’s not going to be any of this 4-3 stuff.”

“I never would have brought this (ordinance) forward had we not gone through what we did with (the) Kachemak City water issue,” Lord said at the meeting. “The mayor brought forth a piece of policy and voted to break a tie. To me, and to many of the people I’ve talked with, that fundamentally broke a lot of trust.”

At that march meeting when the water extension issue was voted on, Castner did say just before discussion began on the ordinance that his vote was “on the table.” Still, council members at the time and on Monday insist it came as a surprise to them in general.

Lord said the attempt to have the mayor always vote in the case of a tie was a point of consistency for her.

“It’s the point of not knowing where you stand at any moment,” she said.

Council members Heath Smith and Shelly Erickson spoke about how voting worked with former Mayor Bryan Zak. They said Zak would often vote to break a tie after not weighing in on the council discussion and described it as a bit out of the blue or blindsiding.

“I think that the mayor, at heart, is trying to encourage us as a body to ask other people other than the three that we know fall on one line, to be involved in the policy making so that there can be a collaboration of minds, a collaboration of principles and the way we see things,” Smith said. “And I think what that generates, ultimately, is better policy.”

Lord responded that she, too, had been on board with Castner’s goal of making the council work together more cohesively, but that she felt the time for the experiment was over.

“When we are split 3-3, I personally would value your input and your weighing vote on that,” she said to Castner. “And I don’t think that it would always go my way, or Shelly’s way or Donna (Aderhold’s) way. I don’t actually always know where that would line, and I think that’s actually super valuable.”

Smith also said he thinks it would be “bad form” for the council to try to change city code to compel the mayor to break ties when Castner was elected on a platform of not voting at meetings.

However, council members Lord and Caroline Venuti insisted that abstaining from voting to break a tie is essentially the same thing as casting a “no” vote because, when an ordinance or other measure ends in a tie, it automatically fails. Others, including Castner, insisted refraining from breaking the tie is not a “no” vote and is simply inaction. Robert’s Rules of Order, which the city council follows during its meetings, consider an abstention by a mayor a “no” vote, according to the ordinance text.

Smith also said he wasn’t in favor of the ordinance because it would make the office and powers of the mayor more restrictive by not giving the mayor an option when it came to voting. Lord countered that the city can never be more lenient in its laws than the state, but that it can choose to be more restrictive.

Aderhold said she was torn when it came to the ordinance, but voted for it because she wanted to see it advance to a public hearing so that the council could hear from constituents.

Venuti agreed that a mayor refraining from breaking a tie is the same thing as casting a no vote, but ultimately voted against introducing the ordinance, saying she didn’t want to undermine the fact that Castner was elected on a platform of not voting to break ties.

Before the vote, Castner said he respected having the conversation and that he did not take the ordinance as an affront of any kind.

“When I made that campaign promise, I never really had considered what would happen if I was sponsoring an ordinance,” he said. “I really didn’t think that that (the water extension ordinance) was going to … draw the controversy that it drew when I sponsored it. The second time I broke a tie, it was just a procedural sort of a thing because I thought that something should not die on first reading (introduction), that it should go to public hearing. I think that that’s kind of a fundamental sort of a thing. And I really kind of resent taking heat on that issue, but I won’t do it again. Three-three on a first reading? I’m not going to break that kind of tie again.”

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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