Eagle River secessionists could be getting a jumpstart from an unexpected source: a staunch progressive on the Anchorage Assembly.
On Monday, Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, who represents the Anchorage’s downtown district, said on social media that he intends to ask the Assembly to put a question before Anchorage voters on the April ballot that asks: “Should the area of Eagle River, Chugiak, and Eklutna be detached from the Municipality of Anchorage and form a separate local government?”
The measure would not include Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and would be purely advisory, meaning that even if the majority of voters approved it would not separate the northern communities from the Anchorage Bowl.
“It’s just the idea that I’ve been hearing long and hard from members of the Eagle River community — that they’re interested in leaving the municipality. This is an opportunity to poll their neighbors of the municipality as a whole,” Constant said in an interview.
An advisory vote isn’t necessarily tied to a specific action or process, and is like “taking the temperature” on an idea, said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance.
Constant said he plans to put his proposal on the agenda for the next Assembly meeting. The Assembly would need to vote whether to send the question to voters at the last meeting in January for the measure to make it on this year’s ballot, Constant said. His proposal needs a simple majority to pass, he said.
An advisory vote, he said, would be “the most cost effective way to get the question on the table,” and would avoid expensive polling and campaign outreach from EaglExit, a group seeking to separate Eagle River, Chugiak and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson from the municipality.
Last year, EaglExit asked the city for money to support its campaign.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson had routed a request to the Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board, asking the board whether it wanted to spend money for parks and roads on exploring the movement instead, but the proposal was quashed before making it to the board.
[Earlier coverage: Chugiak-Eagle River residents renew effort to separate from Anchorage]
Debbie Ossiander, a co-chair of the board at the time, said both the mayor’s office and EaglExit asked her to kill the proposal.
Bronson’s chief of staff at the time said the mayor was not supporting or opposing EaglExit.
When asked whether Bronson would support putting the question on voter ballots this year, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said that Bronson “cannot comment on legislation until it’s introduced.”
Michael Tavoliero, chairman of the EaglExit campaign, did not return a request for comment.
Assembly member Felix Rivera said he was not surprised by the proposal because of Eagle River’s pivotal role in clinching the conservative mayor’s win in last year’s election over his progressive opponent.
Eagle River, a largely conservative district, “was the only reason that Bronson is mayor right now,” Rivera said. “...So it’s absolutely not a surprise that some folks would really be pushing for Eagle Exit to actually happen.”
Rivera said the idea puts the mayor in a tricky position, because many of Bronson’s supporters live in Eagle River and Chugiak, and many also support EaglExit.
“I think it is going to be very interesting to see how the mayor responds to something like that, because he knows his base is out there,” Rivera said. “So he doesn’t want to upset his base — or lose his base.”
An Eagle River and Chugiak exit from the city would be plagued with complications, Rivera said, including questions of constitutionality, shared utilities and land investments. It’s a reason he hasn’t supported the idea in the past.
Ossiander, a former Assembly member, said she thinks an advisory vote on the issue is premature.
“There’s just so many complex questions. I think maybe taking it a piece at a time is a little more realistic than just jumping to the end and saying yes or no,” she said.
There hasn’t been a recent or thorough investigation into how much it would cost the communities, and how services such as schools and utilities would be split from the municipality, she said.
“We’re not anywhere near being able to say ‘should we separate yet?’” said Crystal Kennedy, who represents the district on the Assembly. “The question is: do we want to investigate the potential?’ Do people want to know what it would look like?”
Kennedy said she has been working for several months to vet the proposition. Overall, she supports Eagle River getting a more direct say in its local governance, but wants to make sure that any electoral proposition is framed in a way that doesn’t scare or misinform residents before appearing in front of them.
“I’m absolutely stunned to think that Chris Constant would bring something forward like that, which has everything to do with my district and not his,” Kennedy said as she was on the road driving back south towards the municipality after spending the holiday at her cabin in the Willow area. “I’m a little insulted, really.”
Member Jamie Allard also represents the area on the Assembly, and said that while she herself is generally supportive of Eagle River leaving the municipality, any ballot question would need to be carefully considered and worded.
“It’s just his way of taking the conservative representation out of the municipality,” Allard said of Constant’s proposal. “We’ll have to figure out what the lines are, what the boundaries (are), it isn’t up to Chris to determine.”
Allard said the north Anchorage communities tend to track closer to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough when it comes to things like local government and the school board.
“I definitely believe it would benefit our community to leave the municipality,” Allard said. “There’s nothing that’s stopping us from becoming part of the Mat-Su.”
LaFrance said she’s long heard from some residents of Eagle River urging support for an exit.
“I definitely support having the conversation and exploring the question,” she said, although she did not say whether or not she would vote in favor of Constant’s proposal.
Several other Assembly members, reached by phone, had not yet seen Constant’s proposal and declined to comment.
Ever since the current boundaries of the Assembly were incorporated in the 1970s, Eagle River has had a vexed relationship with the rest of the city, and made multiple overages at separation.
“We called it the ‘Great Divorce,’ ” said Fred Dyson, a former Assembly member and state representative from the area, who backed a secession effort in the 1980s. “The issue with most divorce(s) is property settlement.”
While he remains firmly supportive that the north Anchorage communities would be better served by full self-determination, Dyson said major questions have never been resolved about the mechanics of the split. Major public facilities like school buildings and critical infrastructure like the Eklutna Reservoir, power plant and Anchorage Regional Landfill would need to be accounted for.
Demographically, the area is more white, and far more politically conservative than the municipality as a whole, with huge pockets of active-duty and retired military. Of the at-times-strained relationship, Dyson recalled a former colleague of his who used to say, “‘We send them the best water in the state, they send us garbage and sex offenders,’” referring to Eklutna Lake, the municipal landfill and Highland Mountain Correctional Center, which used to house male sex offenders.
Eagle River already has several civic provisions that make it distinct from most other parts of the municipality, for example its own parks and roads service area, as well as its own standards for zoning and construction. It remains a topic of dispute whether residents in the area could pay for the same level of education, public safety, and other services they currently enjoy without substantially raising taxes on themselves.
A 2007 study of the proposition concluded that an autonomous Eagle River, “could not provide its potential citizens with the same level of services that the current MOA provided in 2006 without an increase in property taxes or some other form of revenue.”
Dyson thinks the expanded autonomy would be worth higher taxes, though he doubts the majority of residents would feel the same way and willingly opt to increase their own tax burden.
The EaglExit campaign has disputed the math on that proposition.
In campaign materials, organizers say that a stand-alone Eagle River would have a smaller, more efficient local government structure.
“Who can manage your tax dollars more efficiently? A bloated and unresponsive municipality? Or a small local office with a minimal staff that is easily accessible and held responsible by the public?” reads a campaign brochure. “Our goal is to create a lean and efficient government that utilizes private-sector assistance when possible, costing everyone less.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Anchorage Regional Landfill.