Alaska officially became the 49th state in the Union 56 years ago this month. Gov. William A. Egan was sworn in on Jan. 3, 1959, and the new state got down to the business of figuring out how to govern itself. The job was made easier, however, because many diligent Alaskans had meet three years earlier and created a road map for the newly elected officials to follow.
The participants of that convention found one of their most difficult problems to be the intermediate government between municipalities and the state. Their solution was the creation of a unit known as the “borough.”
“It’s a county with a New York name,” a legislator once said.
Most delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not want to slice the territory into a large number of counties as in other states. Valdez delegate William A. “Bill” Egan listed “make-up of the political subdivision” as one of the four major issues to be solved.
And opinions on how to do that ranged widely.
“The issue of the basic composition of local government is a thorny one which must be met,” said then-delegate to the U. S. Congress Sen. E.L. “Bob” Bartlett when the convention opened.
The problem was turned over to a local government committee headed by John Rosswog of Cordova. Serving with him were John Cross of Kotzebue, Victor Fischer and Victor Rivers, both of Anchorage, Eldor Lee of Petersburg, Maynard D. Londborg of Unalakleet, and James P. Doogan of Fairbanks.
“The problem is to get a modern local government without duplication, one that will not be burdensome to the people,” Rivers said a few weeks later. “The tax structure, for example, should be equitable and overlapping.”
The committee called in Dr. Vincent Ostrom of Oregon State College and Stanford to assist in formulating a “workable relationship between the new local government unit and the existing cities within its jurisdiction.”
Two days later, the committee recommended the convention “divide the future states into cities and rural municipalities, eliminating counties.”
With the new form of government generally conceived, the committee started looking for a name for the unit. While other states used towns, counties, shires, parishes, boroughs and bergs, members of the committee initially felt the identity should be one of Native derivative.
One suggestion combined “nuna,” meaning inhabited area, with “puk,” which means big, to call the units “nunapuks.” But borough eventually won out after much debate.
At its third reading on Jan. 31, 1956, the committee decided “all local government powers of the state of Alaska shall be vested in boroughs and cities.” Approval came only after a vote in which 16 delegates voted for the word “county” and 21 for the word “borough” adopted the local government provision.
As adopted, Article X spelled out “that the entire state shall be divided into boroughs, organized and unorganized,” with the Legislature to “classify boroughs and prescribe their powers and functions.”
There was probably more speculation and less consensus on the future of the borough system under the Alaska Constitution than on any other single subject connected with local government. But the writers of the state’s Constitution were united on its purpose, “to provide for maximum local self government with a minimum of local government units and duplicating tax-levying jurisdictions.”
And 56 years later, the system of boroughs still is working well for the young state.