Ed Willis is a soft-spoken man who became important to the political and social development of Chugiak-Eagle River.
He was the second local person to be elected to the Greater Anchorage Area Borough Assembly and later served in both the State Senate and House of Representatives. Now retired, he lives in Palmer.
An operator at the Ft. Richardson Power Plant, Willis and his family moved to Eagle River from Anchorage in 1955, building a home on Foothill Drive. He and his wife Joyce had come a year earlier from Barstow, California. During World War II, he served with the Merchant Marine, working in the engine rooms of ships crossing the Atlantic. The unarmed merchant ships were targets of enemy submarines and were in constant peril throughout their voyages.
Willis’ involvement in politics began when, as president of the Eagle River Elementary PTA, he lobbied for special education classes. Their young daughter, Linda, had special needs and Willis spoke strongly in favor of professional staff for her and other similarly-affected students. Alaska at the time was not yet a state and this community was an unincorporated area.
It was in his capacity as PTA president, too, that he became involved in the fight to gain a high school for the community. At the time, Chugiak and Eagle River each had schools for grades 1-8, but older children had to be bussed to classes in Anchorage. Students left home very early in the morning and did not return until late in the evening. They were dependent upon a single school bus and were unable to take part in extra-curricular activities.
Willis and Louise Long were instrumental in gathering other parents to enlist support. At the time there 27 different service and social organizations in the community.
Each was persuaded to join Operation Chugiak High School, the ad-hoc committee formed to lobby the young state’s Legislature for funds to build a high school. The effort was successful and in October of 1964 Gov. William A. Egan spoke at the dedication ceremony.
Students who were due to graduate in the spring of 1965 were expected to continue going to their Anchorage classes but unanimously chose to instead graduate from the new school. One of those students was Sam Cotten who went on to become a member of the Alaska Legislature and currently serves as commissioner of Fish and Game in the administration of Gov. Bill Walker.
It was also in 1964 that seven boroughs were created in Alaska under an act passed by the Legislature. Under the state constitution, a system of boroughs was to be created throughout the state by December 31, 1963. By that date, however, only one had been formed. The Mandatory Borough Act of 1964 decreed that Chugiak-Eagle River would be part of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough, which stretched from Girdwood on the south to Goat Creek on the north (later moved south to a point on the Knik River Bridge), Knik Arm on the west and a line along the Chugach Mountain ridges on the east.
As mentioned in a previous column, arguments in favor of combining the city and borough governments were raised early in the borough’s existence. A charter commission was formed in 1968 to prepare a document that, if approved by voters, would unify the borough government with the three cities of Anchorage, Girdwood, and Glen Alps.
That proposal immediately drew fire from Chugiak-Eagle River. A group of local residents invited people from Spenard, the Anchorage Hillside and Girdwood to join in opposition. Ed Willis was chosen to head the organization, which was dubbed Rural 30 to recognize participation from all 30 voting precincts outside Anchorage.
Adopting the slogan “It Ain’t Writ Right,” the group twice defeated the charter by wide margins outside Anchorage. A third proposed charter, written while Chugiak-Eagle River was preparing to assume responsibility as a separate second-class borough on July 1, 1975, was approved later that year, creating the Municipality of Anchorage.
Willis, who by that time was a member of the borough assembly, expressed disappointment that his community would be part of the unified government.
Rural 30, though, had testified before the charter commission on repeated occasions.
“At least, we were successful in getting many concessions written into the final charter,” he declared. The unified government is a second-class entity, meaning that voters still have control over many items that might otherwise be implemented just by Assembly action. The charter also provides for service areas within the municipality. Chugiak-Eagle River presently has a road service area, a volunteer fire service in Chugiak, a separate parks and recreation service area, and various small streetlight service areas. All those services are overseen by locally-elected district boards of supervisors.
Seeing an opportunity to aid what was expected to be the Chugiak-Eagle River Borough, Willis ran for a seat on the Alaska State Senate in 1974 and was successful. He was there on April 15, 1975, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz reported to a joint session of the Legislature that the court had ruled that the borough was created under a law that was unconstitutional. Since the legislation applied only to Chugiak-Eagle River and not the state in general, it was “special” and not allowed, he told the legislators. General law should have been applied, the lawmakers were told.
“The problem was that there were no laws allowing for separation from one borough and incorporation of a new one,” Willis said at the time. He then set out to prepare legislation that would accomplish that for any area of the state and eventually was successful in getting it passed.
When his party was left without a candidate for the House of Representatives in 1992, Willis stepped in and was elected to that body, serving two terms from 1993-1997.
Throughout his tenure, he was respected by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle and served with distinction.
Over many years of public service, this writer appreciated Willis’ unbiased discussion of issues before both the Assembly and Legislature. He always had a good grasp of the implications, both real and political, of controversial items.
“It’s hard to believe that one body of elected officials would act much differently than any other body of elected officials,” he said when commenting on the results of the Chugiak-Eagle River Borough election of officers in 1974. The Supreme Court decision, though, did not allow that observation to be either proven or disproven here.