By Laurel Downing Bill
Senior Voice Correspondent 

Alaska establishes the "borough" unit

Aunt Phil's Trunk


January 1, 2020

University of Alaska Fairbanks, UAF-1985-120-259

William A. "Bill" Egan, convention president and later governor, served as the Valdez delegate to Alaska's Constitutional Convention in 1955-56 at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and helped to establish boroughs as the intermediate government between municipalities and the state.

More than 60 years ago, the framers of Alaska's Constitution 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."

After listening to Ostrom, 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."

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five, which won the 2016 gold medal for best nonfiction series from Literary Classics International, are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at and


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