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Alaska needs to finish the job of creating boroughs

  • Author: John Havelock
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 24, 2014

Under the Alaska Constitution, the Legislature is told that the "entire state shall be divided" into boroughs. "Each borough shall embrace an area and population with common interests to the maximum degree possible." Standards for the boundaries of boroughs are required to include "population, geography, economy and transportation among other factors." No way can you conclude that all "unorganized" territory on the Alaska map qualifies. The "unorganized borough" must provide for "maximum local participation and responsibility." Where did that go?

One would have thought that this requirement would have been fulfilled long ago. Alaska is the only state not fully divided into counties or boroughs offering variable arrays of governmental powers and services guided through local autonomy.

But Alaska's legislatures have regularly ducked this mandate, pretending that what's left over when boroughs are formed is an "unorganized borough." Of course there were powerful reasons for this neglect, the dominant one being fear of local taxation. Only through the leadership of state Sen. John Rader did a series of rural and semi-rural boroughs get formed, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Even then bribery was required, giving the boroughs valuable land selections. A number of new boroughs were formed on local initiative, of particular interest the Northwest Arctic Borough and the North Slope Borough, but most of Alaska is still in the "unorganized borough."

Giving up this sham is long overdue. There has been some past legislative interest in completing the job but it felt like a push from the top, based on a supposed grievance. The unorganized borough got "too much" in services without paying taxes. But with rare, shallow pockets of wealth, the people of the unorganized borough live in or on the margins of poverty or, its cousin, the subsistence lifestyle.

The funding of regional government must come from the transfer of funds related now to state functions, in the style of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, or through fresh appropriations and maybe a modest taxation of high value commercial property. Wherever oil or gas exploration exists, support comes from automatic reallocation of the oil and gas properties tax.

There are many reasons to finish the job. The recent U.S. Justice Department report, "Ending Violence So Children Can Thrive" decries crime, alcohol abuse and family dysfunction already all too well known to Alaskans.

In the interval since completing a pattern of regional governments was last considered, tribal governments have strengthened and the areas involved have also come under a limited pattern of civil organization derived from regional Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporations, municipal governments, regional health arrangements and school boards. Village Native corporations and village municipal corporations dot the landscape of the unorganized boroughs, but their size limits efficiency and effectiveness.

The expanded Alaska Department of Public Safety policing role is 90 percent after the fact, and late. There is no reason that new boroughs cannot exercise criminal justice powers as does Anchorage, for example. Other state agency roles suffer similar flaws as well as inadequate training for village participation.

Tribal governments now play an important role in many villages and there is a wholly understandable concern that tribal roles not be diminished by competing regional forms of government. But the exercise of tribal authority is limited by the possibility that one of the parties may not be an enrolled Alaska Native and further by the nature of disputes in a life where traditional ways of doing things overlap, sometimes conflicting with urban styles preferred by a participant.

Tribal approaches to problem-solving can be strengthened through contracting arrangements with the new boroughs. The population of almost every one of the new boroughs would be heavily Native, so the fear of domination by outside interests would be minimal to non-existent.

Reformation of the unorganized borough is not an uncomplicated issue. The role of school governance needs to be addressed, for example. But problems arising from our failure to address comprehensive regional government will just get worse as time goes by. The constitutional framers had this one right. We need to implement the mandate.

John Havelock is an attorney and former attorney general of Alaska. He lives in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)