Council votes to allow Topkok’s election to stand
Meghan Topkok raised her right hand and repeated the oath of office as a newly elected Council member at the Oct. 8 meeting of the Nome Common Council.
Topkok’s seating occurred after she successfully appealed a ruling by the city clerk declaring her ineligible to serve, based on a finding that she did not fulfill the Council’s residency requirement. Topkok received exactly 200 more votes than Sarah Jane Swartz in a three-candidate run for Council Seat “D” vacated by Stan Andersen who did not run. Topkok received 358 votes; Swartz, 158; Lucas Sawyer, 78.
Bryant Hammond, city clerk, had ruled that Topkok had been a Nome resident from 2014 to 2016, but that she had ended her residency in 2016 by registering to vote in Anchorage. She and her husband moved to Nome in late May or so this year when they secured permanent jobs.
By law, Topkok had an opportunity to bring her appeal before or during the first canvass of the election ballots by the Council. Topkok presented her case at a special meeting Oct. 4 before a Council of five with a standing-room-only audience. Councilman Lew Tobin was absent on bereavement leave.
Councilman Jerald Brown led the procedure for the hearing of the appeal as spelled out according to law by Charles A. Cacciola, city attorney. Cacciola did not state a position on Topkok’s eligibility; he provided background and interpretation of Nome’s applicable ordinances.
According to the attorney’s memo, “the Council’s decision should be based upon a preponderance of the evidence—is it more likely Topkok satisfies the residency requirement or more likely that she does not? The Council does not need to give any deferene to the clerk’s opinion,” Cacciola wrote.
Brown started out by quizzing each Council member on three items as the panel wore their jury hats:
Is there any person on the Council who feels they are not able to reach an unbiased decision? All responded “No.”
Is there any member of the Council who has had any ex parte contact (individual contact outside a Council meeting) with Topkok regarding her residency? Andersen said he had about a one minute conversation with Topkok, and had been contacted by 30 to 40 individuals, but felt he had remained unbiased. Brown said he had received a couple of e-mails and been contacted by individuals. Additionally he had seen a post and a thread discussing the issue on social media, “but none of that has made it impossible for me to have an unbiased opinion at this point,” Brown said. The remainder of the Council members indicated they had not had ex parte conversation with Topkok on the residency issue.
Based on these answers, did Topkok want to ask any member of the Council not to participate in the appeal? She did not, Topkok responded.
Brown then asked to Topkok to state her case, stating that she could present from her previously submitted information, offer new information, or call witnesses.
Topkok based her appeal for her seat at the Council table on two points.
First, the ordinance in city law did not require candidates to be a resident the year immediately prior to taking a seat on the City Council.
“The statute is very ambiguous. You have a voter qualifications statute that reads very differently. Even if you do find that you have to be a resident immediately prior, I would posit my registering to vote in other places does not implicitly terminate my Nome municipality residence,” she said.
“The clerk’s decision is based on the assumption that the qualified candidate must have been resident of Nome since October 2017. A 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 sales tax, property tax, and utility bill is eligible to be a member of City Council. The language could have been explicit here in saying a resident one year immediately prior to taking office. If you look the Ordinance 7.10.010 a person may vote in a municipal election only if he is a United States citizen qualified to vote in state elections, has been a resident of the city for 30 days immediately preceding the election …So I definitely meet that,” Topkok continued.
“ My understanding is that these two ordinances were adopted contemporaneously, so it was within the discretion of the person revising these ordinances that they could have copied the language over into the candidate qualifications. When we have an ambiguous statute in front of us, the Alaska Supreme Court provides some pretty clear guidance,” Topkok went on. “In cases where there is a statutory ambiguity as to whether a candidate should be allowed to run for office, the statute should be construed in favor of eligibility, according to an Alaska Supreme Court case in 2008, cited by Cacciola in his Memorandum to the Council,” Topkok pointed out.
“So I think it is a very reasonable, and I think there are a lot of people here who agree it is a very reasonable interpretation that it does not require the 12 months immediately prior, so would be unfair and unequal to apply that 12 months immediately prior to me when you haven’t held other candidates to that and scrutinized them to meet that qualification. If there is no precedence saying you are looking at 12 months prior, then you are not bound to do so and I would see it as being very unfair treatment…to suddenly impose that on me,” Topkok said.
Topkok went on to share her background on the issue. Her family had lived here for a very long time, Topkok said, for generations. Her grandparents were born here. Her grandmother was then adopted out at four-years-old, so she grew up in Oregon.
Topkok had decided to pursue opportunities in Nome and arrived in 2012.
She was here only for summer and worked for Kawerak, Inc., leaving in August to return to Dartmouth for her senior year at college. She graduated with honors and looked for employment at Kawerak. She moved back to Nome and intended to remain in June of 2013. She had a library card, a GCI account, an NJUS account, a post office box, Topkok said, also an Alaska driver’s license, “all of these are factors when you think about residency. So I think it is fairly undisputed that I did live here for over a year, from June 2013 to August 2014. In early 2014 I was considering continuing my education based on my work at Kawerak”
She applied to law school and was accepted, so she did leave in August 2014 to pursue further education. She was accepted at University of Oregon where her mother and brother resided and still had a lot of connections there. It was a natural fit that she go to Oregon to pursue education after spending four years on the east coast, according to Topkok.
Topkok was able to return to Anchorage in the third year of undergraduate school. That was when she registered to vote, in order to vote in state and national elections. She had not voted in local elections. In her seven years of education, she spent time studying abroad. As a law student she began to realize how important municipal elections are and how it impacts the community, but she did not vote in any of the municipalities while she was away from Nome. She did not consider herself a resident in them.
Coming to her second point, “if you do find that one has to be a resident the 12 months prior to taking a seat on the City Council, it was put forth in the city clerk’s decision that my registering to vote in 2016 was implicitly terminating my Nome municipality residence,” Topkok told the Council. “ I would argue that was not the case. It was never my intent. Had I understood the ramifications of updating my address for the purpose of voting, I would not have. I never changed my driver’s license. I think it is pretty clear I only changed my address for the purpose of voting in state and national elections but not local.”
She received a number of accolades and prestigious awards when featured in an article stating that Nome was her home, She offered the Council letters of support, e-mails and other documents showing that she intended to return to Nome, even in an article about her achievements in the Nome Nugget, stating her home was Nome.
“Nome is where my roots are, this is where I want to be,” Topkok declared. “These are the people and this is the land I was going to school to benefit.”
Topkok called Melanie Bahnke, current president of Kawerak, to the podium to attest to Topkok’s intention to return to Nome, after Bahnke was sworn in by Hammond, city clerk.
It had become apparent to Bahnke during Topkok’s employment at Kawerak that she loved the region and loved the town, that Nome was where she wanted to be and felt most at home, Bahnke said. “It is very rare that you get an Alaska Native tribal member with a law degree, from Dartmouth, whose passion is to come back and to provide services to the region,” Bahnke said.
The Council voted themselves into executive session to consider Topkok’s eligibility.
They came back into regular session after 16 minutes deliberation and unanimously voted to accept Topkok’s appeal.