Students debate formation of borough

Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Should the southern Kenai Peninsula, from Ninilchik to Nanwalek, pull out of the Kenai Peninsula Borough in favor of a more localized form of government? That was the question argued Friday by two-member drama, debate and forensics teams from Homer and Nikiski high schools. Homer's Whitney Cushing and Adrian Ryan took the affirmative, while Tatiana Butler and Sharon Miller of Nikiski opposed Homer's secession. After 90 minutes of intense debate, the Nikiski team emerged victorious, but not without a fight.

"It is the best possible representation of local control," Cushing said in support of forming a South Peninsula Borough. He pointed to differences separating the Kenai-Nikiski-Soldotna area from communities within the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area and immediately introduced Homer's debate on box store construction into the argument. "Is it fair that a company can set up shop outside the city limits?"

Using a rapid-fire approach developed during her years as a debater, Butler argued that secession defied Alaska law, was not economically feasible and would split rather than unify peninsula residents. A crossfire followed, with Cushing and Butler attempting to strengthen their individual arguments and undermine their opponent. Cushing claimed the Homer area was able to assume the debt of creating a new borough. Butler asked what services Homer was not currently receiving from the borough.

"It's not about access to services. It's about quality of services," Cushing said. When Butler targeted Homer's ability to pay for itself, Cushing shot back, "If we are such a burden to the borough, why do you want us?"

Ryan controlled the podium next, immediately focusing on the lack of effective local control and using Homer's participation in city government as an example.

"There is extreme citizen support," he said of attendance at city council meetings."But not at Kenai Peninsula Borough meetings."

Building on the theme of participation, Ryan said Homer contributes 20 percent of the borough's property tax with a population that is only 8 percent. Miller followed on his heels, pointing out that the borough provides Homer with financial support, using education and tourism as examples.

"I really like Homer and kind of want to live here," Miller said, which brought a round of laughter from the audience. When Ryan and Miller squared off in the crossfire round, Ryan used Homer's support of a proposition on a 2003 special boroughwide election that failed at the borough level to illustrate lack of local control. If passed, the proposition would have authorized the borough to fund cocurricular school activities. Miller countered by asking for voting results in other southern peninsula communities. Sticking with a lack of local control theme, Ryan returned to the box store issue, pointing out that the building size limit set by Homer does not apply outside Homer's city limits. Miller then asked how far the proposed new borough would stretch and if Homer had the support of its neighboring communities.

Questions from the three judges Gary Superman of Nikiski, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president; Milli Martin, who represents areas of the southern Kenai Peninsula; and Gary Thomas, business and sales manager for the Homer News, and the crowd of spectators asked the students for additional information on related issues, including disbursement of borough oil and gas revenues, value of borough road authority, examples of secession in other areas of the state and the constitutional basis for Alaska boroughs.

Cushing proved quick on his feet when an audience member asked if there was support for dissolving city government in favor the a new borough. His response drew more laughter from the crowd, as he obviously took creative liberty in crafting a response to strengthen his argument favoring secession.

"We were just about to get to the phone surveys," Cushing said.

In summation, Ryan said secession came down to economics and philosophy.

"Philosophy is what we disagree on," he said of long-distance versus local control. "They want to keep it far away."

Miller's closing targeted a comment made by Cushing referring to planning needed to form a new borough.

"Whitney (Cushing) said leaving the borough tomorrow would be terrible," she said. "When would it not be terrible?"

Score cards from the Alaska School Activities Association, the organization overseeing DDF events, directed the judges to evaluate team performances on analysis, reasoning, evidence, organization, refutation, delivery and cross-examination. Nikiski took the winner's crown.

"I was impressed by both sides' arguments," said Superman, noting the students grasp of the Constitution and other related documents. He said that was more evident with the Nikiski team. "Maybe that's what swayed the judges a little bit over to them and they won the debate, but I understood the Homer team's arguments. They made some valid points as far as local control on the southern end."

"I thought they were more persuasive," Martin said of the Nikiski team.

"They managed to bring their points forward in a more effective manner, but I thought it was very close. There were times when some of (Homer's) responses were right smack dab on. Overall, it was just by a point or so."

Nikiski coach Joe Rizzo specifically selected Butler and Miller for the Friday debate.

"They are my best debaters and I thought they would provide a good example of what debate is supposed to look like," Rizzo said. This is Homer's first year in the DDF arena, according to coach Dan Westerburg. "This was their first public forum with spirited cross-examination back and forth," Westerburg said. "They were up against two very experienced debaters. We're used to arguing more value (related) debates. We look at the emotional end of it. Nikiski people look at the facts. Often it's the facts that end up controlling the debate."

Secession from the Kenai Peninsula Borough is not a new topic for Nikiski or Homer. Dan Bockhorst of the state Division of Community Advocacy said a 1963 proposal to form a Homer-Ninilchik borough was rejected by the Local Boundary Commission because it failed to meet the standards for incorporation by the borough at that time. There also has been interest in the past on the part of Nikiski residents to detach from the borough and form a separate borough. That interest resulted in one formal attempt that was subsequently rejected by the boundary commission.

"I wrote most of the petition," Superman said of the failed attempt. "The state's not going to let it happen. This was really all kind of just a scholastic exercise."

"Since I got involved in the borough back in 1982, that is something that has come up darn near every year," Martin said.

This weekend, DDF teams from around Alaska will meet at state competition at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"Our hats are off to them," Martin said.

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