Power to the people — Incorporation of borough posed big questions

Photo courtesy of the Kenai Historical Society. This photo of the Borough Administration Building was most likely taken sometime in early spring in the mid- to late 1970s.

Photo courtesy of the Kenai Historical Society. This photo of the Borough Administration Building was most likely taken sometime in early spring in the mid- to late 1970s.

Editor’s note: The Kenai Peninsula Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and Kenai Peninsula College celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year. Following is a look at the incorporation of the borough.

By Brent Johnson

For the Redoubt Reporter

It was rough for boroughs to form. Framers of the Alaska Constitution picked boroughs to be better than the counties that in 1956 provided local government services in 47 states. As Vic Fischer and Tom Morehouse put it in their 1971 book, “Borough Government in Alaska,” “Alaska would thus avoid the proliferation of overlapping special districts, municipalities and counties that have made urban areas nearly ungovernable in most of the rest of the country.” Fischer, 90, of Anchorage, knows something about it since he was one of the 55 delegates who crafted the constitution, one of only three still living. Morehouse was a University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research professor from 1968-94.

The constitution was ratified with statehood in 1959, but two years later there were still no boroughs in Alaska. Fischer and Morehouse explained it this way: “There was, in the first place, widespread local opposition to the creation of boroughs during the initial years after statehood. They would bring new and unwanted governmental controls and taxes to rural areas lying outside of any local jurisdiction, areas that were already receiving basic educational, road maintenance, and police protection services directly from the state.

“The boroughs, moreover, would overlap existing cities, and were therefore viewed as threats to city autonomy and as competitors for funds, functions, and territory. There was a similar problem with the existing school districts, where school boards and school administrative organizations resisted borough controls over their local public education programs.”

Statehood was popular. In a 1958 special election, statehood passed 40,462 to 8,010 (83 percent). Out of a population of about 225,000, around 48,500 voted (21.5 percent). Apparently, the desire to determine their own destiny propelled Alaskans into statehood, but fear of government and taxes left boroughs out of the equation. In some ways it was a strange irony. People seemed to have regarded statehood as gaining freedom from the federal government, and at the same time regarded boroughs as an entity to which they would lose freedoms.

For that matter, state government needed to take several steps before the formation of boroughs was even possible. The first Legislature set up a Local Boundary Commission, as prescribed by Section 12, Article 10 of the constitution. It was the Boundary Commission that had authority to approve or reject the boundaries of any borough formation petitions.

The 1961 Legislature tried to help citizens form boroughs by passing the Borough Act of 1961. It permitted the establishment of borough governments by local option. To bring a proposed borough to a ballot, organizers had to agree on boundaries, “class” (as in First Class, Second Class, etc., which describes the extent of municipal powers) and decide where the seat of government would be.

Then they needed to gather the signatures of 25 percent of the number of voters who, within their proposed boundaries, had cast votes in the previous election. Once these tasks were completed, the organizers would petition the Local Boundary Commission.

In area after area, defining boundaries proved to be too hard for organizers. Only in Bristol Bay were organizers able to accomplish the requirements and form a borough, which was approved by voters in 1962.

The Feb. 2, 1962, Cheechako News, in an article titled “Borough Study Group Organizes on the Peninsula,” covers one of the early borough-formation meetings on the Kenai Peninsula, and also tells of previous meetings:

“Burton Carver reported on a borough meeting he attended at Anchorage and Bob Palmer on one held at Ninilchik … . Dr. Deisher asked, ‘Are boroughs a good thing? Is the state Board of Education pushing borough government? Can we afford it?’ And, ‘How large should it be?’ Considerable discussion followed presentation of the last question.”

Carver was the mayor of Soldotna from 1961-65, and an entrepreneur extraordinaire. He and his wife, Joyce, built several businesses, including the Riverside House restaurant and hotel, which began hosting Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheons in 1963. This was also the site of many borough-formation meetings.

Bob and Sue Palmer moved to Ninilchik in 1948. Palmer was a commercial fisherman, school teacher and farmer. Dr. Joseph Deisher was a family physician who brought his wife, Beth, to Seward in 1951.

In addition to being a doctor, he was president of the Seward Chamber of Commerce. Current Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Sue McClure married Deisher’s son, Phil, in about 1968. Phil and Sue lived in Fairbanks for several years, where Phil served on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly.

The Cheechako went on to say:

“The group vetoed the suggestion that the Kenai Peninsula join with Anchorage in forming one large borough. Thirty-seven of the 50 community representatives at the meeting voted that the entire peninsula should be a separate and distinct borough.

Communities represented and number from each community were: Clam Gulch, 1; Cohoe, 3; Cooper Landing, 4; Homer, 3; Kenai, 7; Moose Pass, 3; Ninilchik, 7; North Kenai-Nikiski, 6; Seldovia, 1; Seward, 3; Soldotna, 13; Sterling 1.”

The next meeting was set for Feb. 17, but a meeting in Seward seems to have occurred before that date. The Feb. 17, 1962, Anchorage Daily Times provides these details:

“The concept of a Cook Inlet Basin Borough is distasteful to persons in the Seward area, residents have indicated. Five members of an informal group seeking support for the borough, which would include the Matanuska Valley, Susitna drainage, the greater Anchorage area and the Kenai Peninsula, attended a special meeting last night in the Resurrection Bay community. Their purpose was to discover just how this area stood on the large borough question. They found out. Dick Fischer of Anchorage headed the pro-large borough quintet. Leader of the anti-large borough group was Dr. J.B. Deisher, chairman of the Kenai Peninsula borough study group. Mrs. Larry Urbach, president of the Seward (sic) moderated the discussion.

“Both men warmed up with a brief description of the borough law and its purpose. Dr. Deisher pointed out that the Anchorage borough study group had turned down a large borough proposal last month in favor of one establishing three medium-sized boroughs.

“‘A month later, the large borough idea was resurrected,’ the Seward chairman said. ‘I think it would be better if it remained buried.’

“A majority of more than 75 persons attending the meeting appeared to agree with Dr. Deisher. Ninety percent of Kenai residents favor a small borough, one member of the audience claimed.”

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.

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Filed under Almanac, Kenai Peninsula Borough

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