Will home rule charter be worth effort, cost?

It’s amazing what a difference a few decades make. In the 1970s Homer considered becoming a home rule city. A charter commission was elected, a home rule charter was drafted and presented to the voters. 

Home rule was defeated by just one or two votes in an election that I think still holds the record as Homer’s closest. If memory serves me right, the defeat of the proposed home rule charter was in large part due to the strong and articulate opposition of two men: Gary Williams, who would later become mayor, but at the time was editor of the Homer News, and Ken Castner, still well known in Homer. Their opposition was in part because they disliked the residency requirements to run for office, but mostly they felt home rule was unnecessary and Homer would function just as well or better under the state municipal code. 

They were right, we really didn’t need home rule, we’ve been doing just fine operating under the state municipal code.

City councils, mayors and city managers have come and gone over the years. To be sure we’ve had our share of characters and our dust-ups, but we’ve enjoyed pretty darn good governance. There have been a lot of really great people who have served the city, and there’s been no shortage of community participation in debates and issues. We face lots of thorny issues and problems but nothing that a home rule charter will fix or help.

I served on the original Homer charter commission back in the day. Drafting a charter is a huge undertaking and a lot of hard work. My memory is of night after night plowing through the municipal code plus another three or four sample charters line by line and then debating almost every line or section. It was a great civics lesson, I learned more about cities and governance that I thought I ever wanted to know.

 I was sad when the charter failed. Forty years ago I thought home rule was a good idea. Homer was young, it was much smaller and simpler, and did not have a huge library of ordinances that will need reconciling with a new charter. 

Going to home rule now will be really complex and complicated, i.e., expensive of time and money. 

The original proposed charter was a pretty conservative document; except for a few minor things we stuck pretty close to the municipal code. And therein lay the problem, the closer a home rule charter is to municipal code the less reason there is to adopt it. The further a charter deviates away from code the more things get strange and crazy and the less reason there is to adopt it. 

The trick is to identify just what problem does the city have that a home rule charter will fix. If such a problem can’t be clearly identified then it’s just difficult and expensive busywork. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. 

Mr. Castner says home rule will improve participation in government, but he has no idea what a new charter will do, nobody does. What home rule does or does not do depends entirely on what the charter commission presents to the voters.

The charter commission is an elected independent body whose sole purpose is to draft and present a home rule charter. Subject to voter approval and boxed in by certain state statutes the charter commission has rather amazing powers to offer change. The charter can change our basic form of government. It can abolish the city manager and establish a strong mayor or some other type of government. It can create or abolish positions or even whole departments. It can change or nullify ordinances either on purpose or by accident. 

Most people will ignore the work of the charter commission, but the special interests will be out in force lobbying hard for their interests and endeavors. Without great care and caution it’s altogether too easy for mischief to slip in.

Mr. Castner needs to articulate a clear and powerful need for change before we undertake the work, expense, and agony of drafting a home rule charter. Like the sign says: Proceed with great caution.

Dr. Paul Eneboe has lived in Homer since 1968.