When it comes to talking about government, a constant theme is that decisions with local impacts should be made as locally as possible.
It’s a great idea in theory, but it can be a challenge to put into practice. Why? Because good local decision making requires good local input, and engaging citizens in local government is proving to be easier said than done.
In Soldotna, a commission was elected last spring and tasked with developing a new charter that would make it a home-rule city. The change would give more authority to the city, particularly on issues such as tax policy. Under its current structure, Soldotna is required to follow the borough’s lead on what it can tax. As a home-rule city, Soldotna would be able to set its own tax rates, as is done in Kenai.
Members of the charter commission spent a good chunk of the day on Tuesday sharing details of the proposed charter at a Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and later at an open house at City Hall. The events were relatively lightly attended, and some members of the commission expressed concerns that they would be able to reach as many city residents as possible before voters weigh in on Oct. 4.
In Nikiski, a group is looking into incorporating the community as a city, and held an open house on Wednesday to let residents ask questions about the petition, draft charter and incorporation process. As an unincorporated community, Nikiski’s current elected representation includes an assembly member and a school board member. However, those officials are part of borough-wide elected bodies, which means that decisions impacting Nikiski are made by elected officials from other parts of the peninsula. Incorporation would allow Nikiski to elect its own city council and have more direct control over things such as how taxes collected in the community are spent.
The Nikiski open house also was lightly attended, though the incorporation effort is still very early in the process.
While Soldotna’s charter commission and Nikiski’s incorporation study group will benefit from good public participation now, the need for community engagement won’t go away after approving a new charter or incorporating. It will be incumbent upon members of the community to engage with their elected city council members to ensure the community’s interests are being met. That means attending meetings on a regular basis — not just when a controversial issue comes up — and throwing a hat in the ring when its time to serve on a council or city commission.
We think that communities wanting to have more say over decisions that affect them is a good thing. We just want to make sure residents know that for best results, taking on that authority has to come with a commitment to remain engaged in the public process.