This past week a new epoch in American governance began with the swearing in of Donald Trump. And with the accompanying change in the character of our federal government, I’ve been ruminating on recent changes to borough governance. Certainly borough changes have not been as dramatic as those in the nation’s capital, but they may change the character of our community even more profoundly.
Before moving to Kodiak, my wife and I lived along the coast of Central California near the opulent estates of Carmel and Pebble Beach. Later, we moved to just outside of Reno. In the former, wealthy and prominent individuals orchestrated local governance. In the latter, gambling interests controlled local politics. And in each, government’s interest in the concerns of ordinary citizens was somewhere between nil and minus zero.
In the modest “neighborhoods” where my wife and I lived, these were not really neighborhoods in the truest sense. More they were collections of residences located in close proximity one to another with little, if any, interaction transpiring with one’s neighbor.
Thus when my wife and I moved to Kodiak, we were overjoyed to be able to purchase a small cabin on a lake on the outskirts of town and become part of an established neighborhood of families and greenbelt and wildlife. Indeed, ours was a small community with common norms, not merely a collection of residences.
Here in Kodiak, local government was simple: A citizen could just show up at an assembly meeting, state his concern, and oftentimes the assembly could solve it then or there. A recent example would be when the “chicken ordinance” was implemented and was causing problems, the assembly directed the borough manager to just ignore the new ordinance until the assembly could fix it. Simple. Problem solved.
Today, too much borough assembly time is spent on nitpicky administrative stuff — for example, changing Robert’s Rules of Order to allow for postponing an item past the next meeting. In the past the assembly would just do it, using Robert’s only as a guide. Today Robert’s has been transformed into a rigid, legalistic document wherein changes require protracted discussion, motions, seconds, votes and only the good Lord knows what else.
Also, the character of conducting borough business has changed. Recently during an assembly discussion of ADUs, assembly member Symmons noted that townsfolk who waylaid him while he was out and about generally were not in favor of them. Whereas during the borough assembly meeting, borough staff countered with the observation that on the borough’s Facebook page, there had been over 7,000 “likes” on this particular issue (insinuating a favorable disposition on this question). Enter social media as part of assembly discussions.
And today, the assembly is discussing details of providing additional Kodiak housing (ADUs) by transforming established neighborhoods into communities of transient renters by allowing large-scale construction of small, studio apartments on any residential property with sufficient room. Within the next meeting or two, the assembly is poised to enact a slum opt-out ordinance wherein outside of city limits, any sort of flim-flam residence that meets no building or safety code can be built. And apparently there is legislative activity in the works to allow for reduced lot sizes in the borough.
Were the borough assembly truly responsible to its citizenry, before such measures are implemented, they would be placed on this October’s municipal election ballot for voter concurrence (referendum); but, so far, there is no indication that they will be. And if citizens seek to do this on their own (initiative), borough code deliberately makes it as difficult as it can.
Bob Dillon’s song title of the ’60s has it that “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” but for government bodies to disenfranchise its citizenry — well, this seems to be a constant.
All of which, of course, is just my opinion.
Jeff Stewart is a retired project manager and former member of the KIBSD Board of Education.