Residency challenge complicates canvassing
The Nome Common Council met at noon on Thursday, Oct. 6 for what usually takes only a few minutes: to canvass the election results of the municipal election from Oct. 4. However, more than an hour was spent on discussing how to deal with a residency challenge that arose on Monday, a day prior to the elections.
But here are the official numbers first. The official results include that Nome Common Councilman Jerald Brown, who ran unopposed, retains his seat E, a three-year term, with a tally of 391 votes. There were 39 write-ins.
Seat F was contested in a three-way race between incumbent Matt Culley and challengers Mark Johnson and Tom Okleasik. No candidate received the mandatory 50 percent plus one vote, consequentially, there will be a runoff election between Mark Johnson and Matt Culley on November 1. Johnson received 226 votes, or 48.09 percent, over Matt Culley’s 133 votes, or 28.30 percent, and Tom Okleasik received 109 votes.
Wes Perkins won Utility Board seat B with 347 votes, unseating incumbent Fred Moody who received 107 votes. There were four write-ins. School Board president Barb Amarok ran unopposed for School Board seat F and received 380 votes, with 49 write-ins.
Chuck Wheeler received 208 votes, with 68 write-ins for Nate Perkins and 16 write-ins for Fred Moody and 83 other write-ins.
Ballot proposition A that asked voters if there should be a seasonal tax increase from 5 percent to 7 percent between May and August, passed with 272 voters in favor and 193 voters against it. The measure will go after second reading on the books and can only be repealed by the voters in a ballot proposition.
In total 473 ballots were cast; there are 2,494 registered voters in Nome, setting voter turnout at 18.97 percent.
Nome resident Carl Emmons challenged the eligibility of Nome Joint Utilities lone candidate for seat D, Chuck Emory Wheeler. With city attorney Charles Cacciola on the speakerphone, councilman Stan Andersen lead through the meeting in the excused absences of mayor Richard Beneville, Councilmen Matt Culley and Louie Green Sr.
Emmons protested Wheeler’s candidacy on several grounds. Number one, Emmons said, the candidate is not current on his garbage pickup payments to Nome Joint Utility System, the very entity Wheeler tries to be a board member of.
“How can we ask of city residents to pay their bills if their elected officials don’t?” Emmons asked during the public comment period. The city code dealing with Voting (7.15.010) (11) states that a candidate under oath at his or her declaration of candidacy swears “that the candidate is not delinquent in payment of any city property tax, sales tax, utility bill or other financial obligation or, if delinquent, that any such obligations are disputed and the reasons listed why the obligation is disputed;” But the city code that determines eligibility of a candidate states “qualified city voter who has been a resident of the city for at least one year prior to taking office and who is not delinquent in payment of any undisputed city property tax, sales tax, utility bill or other financial obligation is eligible to be a member of the city council [highlighted by Ed].” While the question of eligibility in terms of owing the city money is clear for city council candidates, it is ambiguous for other elected officials serving on boards. The common council did not have any guidance from existing codes how to deal with this matter other than putting it on the backburner with the note to themselves: align the city codes further down the road.
As for the validity of the argument, NJUS manager John Handeland was asked to testify and, yes, he said, Wheeler owes NJUS $153.10, but he has made a promise to pay it off and had made several payments on his old bill that goes back to 2013.
Also, Handeland attested to the fact that the residence at said address is not connected to utility services, neither water, sewer nor electricity. “As of the end of 2013, it was understood the house was not habitable and being repaired, so mandatory subscription to water-sewer has not been billed since that time,” Handeland stated in a memo. Short discussion ensued on how “habitability” is determined, but consensus was to tackle that also in the future.
A second argument to the challenge came in form of Wheeler’s de facto residency, which Carl Emmons alleged is outside of city limits, at Fort Davis.
The residency issue became intertwined with the outstanding fees that Wheeler owes NJUS. On his candidacy form, Wheeler gave 208 Round-the-Clock Drive in Icy View as his residency address, which according to Handeland, has no water, sewer or electrical service connection.
Emmons’ challenge submitted on Monday, Oct. 3, a day before the election, was the start of a process executed by City Clerk Bryant Hammond, who went by the available city codes to do due diligence. Hammond started the fact finding mission to determine Wheeler’s eligibility as a voter and candidate and outlined the process in a 21-point memo. In order to be a viable NJUS board candidate, one must be eligible to vote in Nome city elections, according to city code 15.10.040 Membership, qualifications, term and vacancies (NJUB). In order to be a qualified voter, one must live within city limits. Since Wheeler, when questioned by Hammond, produced a voter registration card with the 208 Round-the-Clock address, Hammond had to conclude that “I cannot determine Wheeler’s residency for voting qualification contrary to the address on his official voter registration card, I therefore find that Wheeler is a qualified candidate for the office of Nome Joint Utility Board Seat D,” Hammond’s fact finding document reads.
Hammond then referred the challenge of Wheeler’s qualification to vote in the municipal election to the three-person election board. The election board did not rule or vote on whether or not Wheeler is a qualified voter. The lack of a decision tossed the ball in the council’s court, which made Councilman Andersen uneasy.
I don’t have anything in writing that says we can decide,” said Andersen. City attorney Cacciola agreed and said, “It is not the council’s role to determine his [Wheeler’s, Ed.] eligibility to vote.” However, he said that it is the council’s job to determine whether the failure of the election board to rule on Wheeler’s eligibility to vote in the municipal election would affect the outcome of the election. Cacciola said, in his opinion, it would not. The city code did not offer clear guidance. City Manager Moran clarified with the Nugget that Wheeler didn’t file for the city’s Common Council, so the requirements of 2.15.020 don’t apply. “Therefore, the requirements of 15.10.040 [outlining qualifications for NJUB, Ed.] are the only ones in question,” Moran wrote in an email to the Nugget. “ To make a determination under that section, State of Alaska Voter Registration serves as prima facie evidence. Chuck’s says 208 Round-the-Clock, so Carl Emmons couldn’t overcome that burden of proof.”
During the meeting, attorney Cacciola said since there was no challenge to the elections per se, there were no legal grounds to not canvass the elections. Whoa, wait a minute, Carl Emmons said, “Well, then I challenge the election, if that’s what it takes.” The council took note of the challenge and its basis but also realized that it will not affect the outcome. Cacciola explained that the bar is set very high and that there need to be irregularities that show malicious intent or intent to change the election outcome in order to successfully challenge an entire election.
In the end, the council decided that it had no choice but to canvass the results and leave it to the Utility Board to deal with any potential challenges to the veracity of Wheeler’s declarations.