Pioneers fending for themselves during the early years, Chugiak-Eagle River residents were reluctant to take on governance.
Most welcomed statehood for Alaska and supported the constitution drawn up by citizens. The founding document decreed that boroughs be established, but only the Bristol Bay Borough had been created by the December 31, 1963 deadline. But voters held differing views on local government. Some favored a large borough that covered all of Southcentral Alaska. Some liked the idea of local government in small areas. Many just didn’t want any local government, willing to let the state handle whatever needed to be done.
When the Legislature convened in January of 1964, they had to take action to accomplish what the public had failed to do. Anchorage Representative John Rader took on the challenge of authoring the bill that would mandatorily create seven boroughs, including one that would lump Chugiak-Eagle River with Anchorage and the Girdwood-Portage area. Each borough was to be responsible for at least three services: Education, Planning and Zoning and the universally hated function of Taxation. Each, if they did not choose first class status, could add other services as desired.
Against their will, Chugiak-Eagle River became part of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough, known by its initials GAAB. On the Borough Assembly, the City of Anchorage was to have five members appointed by the city council and six members who were to be elected from the 30 rural precincts. First Chairman of the GAAB Borough Assembly was Spenard resident John Asplund, who spent the first weeks of his administration carrying the borough records around in the back seat of his car as he set up the borough government.
Voters chose to adopt the second class borough status but added health, sewer service, dog control, air pollution, library service and fireworks control to the three mandated services.
They also agreed to allow service areas to provide other functions within neighborhoods where residents voted to do so. The City of Anchorage continued to provide all functions it had exercised in the past, although sewers and planning now came under borough control. Education, previously under the Anchorage Independent School District, also became a borough function.
Chugiak and Eagle River each had volunteer fire departments and residents elected to continue those operations. Eagle River’s volunteer fire department was later taken over by the borough. Chugiak-Eagle River eventually added several individual road service areas and an overall parks and recreation district that were separate from Anchorage. Also extended here was a public library operated by the City of Anchorage.
The decade that followed the creation of the GAAB was tumultuous. Assembly members from the city and those from the rural areas were often at odds. Fire protection became a major point of contention. The Anchorage Fire Department was made up of full-time paid firefighters while Spenard, Girdwood, Chugiak and Eagle River had volunteer operations whose members were unpaid. Tax rates outside the city were lower, but insurance rates were higher. Capability and response times of the firefighters were debated. At budget time, those debates raged intensely.
Confusion over jurisdiction existed between the Anchorage and Spenard fire districts. The issue came to a head when an alarm was called in to the Anchorage Fire Department after a blaze broke out in a small hotel located on the south side of Fireweed Lane. Engines from the downtown Anchorage station arrived but stopped when they saw the location was on the Spenard fire district side of the road. It took some time for an alarm to be sounded with the correct dispatcher. Meanwhile, an occupant of the hotel suffered a broken leg in jumping from a second-floor window to escape the blaze and the building suffered major damage.
That was the last straw for those who wanted an end to divided local government. Public support immediately grew for combining city and borough governments.
Another issue was fueled by a seemingly-innocent line in a half-page advertisement for an Eagle River subdivision. “NO TAXES” stated the ad for lots in the new neighborhood. City residents were told by consolidation proponents that “freeloaders” from outside Anchorage were benefitting from services while paying no taxes to help support them. Both daily newspapers in Anchorage editorialized extensively in favor of combining the two entities.
Chugiak residents at the same time remembered the times they asked for city electric and telephone service, only to be told “If you want city services, annex to the city.” It was an answer that did not compute. Those services instead were obtained from the Valley cooperatives without the burden of taxes that provided no extra benefit.
In 1969 the idea of combined local governments was touted throughout the United States. Miami-Dade in Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana, became examples of “unigov” consolidation. A commission was elected to prepare a charter that would accomplish such a format within the GAAB.
Opposition from outside the City of Anchorage was immediate. An organization named “Rural 30” was formed with members from all 30 rural precincts. Local residents were prominent among its membership. They strongly criticized consolidation, fearing higher taxes, less representation, and neglect of the needs of rural areas. In the election of October 1970, the proposition passed within the city precincts but was soundly defeated outside the city. Approval of both areas was required. In Chugiak-Eagle River precincts, only 10 percent voted yes while 90 percent checked “no.”
A new charter commission was subsequently elected to re-write the proposed charter. Hearings were held to take public input. An organization dubbed “One People” was formed to promote passage while Rural 30 redoubled its efforts. Eagle River resident Shirley Mauldin came up with the slogan “It ain’t writ right.” One People’s response was, “What do they want, good grammar or good government?” In the second election, the result was the same as in the first. The 10 percent number held firm in Chugiak-Eagle River.
During the 1974 legislative session, two Eagle River residents traveled to Juneau to lobby for legislation that would allow Chugiak-Eagle River to form a separate borough.
That effort was backed by the New Borough Association and was successful—briefly. The measure passed but became law without the signature of Gov. Bill Egan. At the election held in August, the separate borough was approved by a 55 percent margin, with only Chugiak-Eagle River residents voting on the question. A mayor, seven assembly members, and five school board members were elected at the same time.
A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the legislation that led to the election was filed by several property owners who raised four points. Judge Ralph Moody ruled for the defendants, saying he did not want to “wade into the political thicket.” The decision was appealed and overturned by the Alaska Supreme Court. Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz announced their decision to a joint session of the Legislature on April 15, 1975. The legislation that led to the secession election was unconstitutional, he said, because it applied only to Chugiak-Eagle River and not to the state as a whole. That stopped preparations for the July 1 assumption of powers by the separate borough.
While Chugiak-Eagle River residents were busy preparing for their own borough, a third charter commission was elected without participation from this area.
Following the Supreme Court announcement, Rural 30 testified at public hearings, arguing strongly in favor of a second-class borough where voters had more control over the actions of the governing body. They also insisted that the charter provide for a professional manager, service districts, and other items limiting political actions.
Thankfully, those items were included in the third charter. This time it passed both inside and outside the city, despite the fact that in Chugiak-Eagle River the yes vote had risen to 25%.
Support for a separate borough has continued.
A major stumbling block, however, is the question of distribution of assets and liabilities. As mayor, this writer in 1975 believed that land and facilities provided by the state directly to Chugiak-Eagle River should be property of the new borough. GAAB, however, insisted that those facilities belonged to GAAB and would have to be purchased by the new borough. Unless the question of who owns what and owes what is specified in any document leading to separation, resulting litigation would take years and cost millions of dollars.