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City of Sitka releases Dove Island letter

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SITKA, ALASKA
About a year ago, the Sitka Assembly denied a conditional use permit for Dove Island Lodge that would have allowed 24 guests per night at its facility near Jamestown Bay. The lodge sued, and about six weeks later the Assembly settled, granting many of the lodge’s original requests.

After the settlement was made, *most* of the documents the Assembly reviewed in its closed sessions on the lawsuit were released to the public. But a rejected settlement offer from Dove Island’s attorney was kept secret.

That piqued the interest of resident Betty Jo Moore, who sued the city to make the letter public. Earlier this month, Sitka Superior Court Judge David George ordered the letter released, and last night, the Assembly decided not to appeal that decision.

City attorney Theresa Hillhouse handed reporters a packet with the documents Moore sued to get. Moore’s attorney, Jim McGowan, is out of town this week, so Raven News sent him a copy of the information distributed at the Assembly meeting Tuesday night, to get his opinion.

“If I sound a little indignant about the whole thing, it’s because I’m a little indignant about the whole thing,” said McGowan, adding that he doesn’t understand what the city was trying to conceal.

“Why should somebody have to come and hire me, to sue the city to get a piece of paper that they should have handed her when they asked for it the first time? It’s ridiculous,” he said. “And then to find out that the document – assuming this is the document – doesn’t have anything scary, frightening or embarrassing in it about the city, there’s no reason that they should have hid this from my client. Why should Ms. Moore have had to hire a lawyer to get this piece of paper?”

The packet of once-confidential information released on Tuesday by the city includes two letters. One, dated April 19, is the settlement offer that was rejected. It asks the city to allow 24 guests per night up to 10 nights each season, in exchange for Dove Island dropping its lawsuit and its request for the city to pay attorneys’ fees and costs.

The other letter, dated April 29, comes with an affidavit from Michael Finnegan, a waiter at a Girdwood restaurant who had previously worked at Dove Island. Finnegan states that Assembly member Phyllis Hackett dined there with a friend the night before the Assembly turned down Dove Island’s permit request.

Finnegan says they struck up casual conversation and when Hackett learned he’d worked at Dove Island, she asked him questions about what he thought of lodge owner Duane Lambeth. Finnegan’s affidavit also says Hackett asked him about the operation of the lodge and its septic system, talked to him about zoning laws, and shared her opinion that Lambeth had failed to follow rules.

Reached by phone after the meeting, Hackett says she remembers the dinner.

“The waiter asked where we were from, just in general chat. I told him we were from Sitka, he mentioned that he’d been here working. So we got into a little bit of conversation, but he was a waiter and we were at dinner, so it wasn’t any big, involved conversation.”

The next day the Assembly met as a Board of Adjustment and turned down Dove Island's permit. When the Assembly is meeting as the board of adjustment, Assembly members are not supposed to discuss those cases outside the official hearing. It’s called ex-parte communication, and according to the written statement issued by Hillhouse on Tuesday night, it could have led to the Assembly’s decision being overturned.

Hackett says she didn’t realize that, and that she thought she was just asking questions about city business, in the way Assembly members do for all kinds of issues.

“It’s not comfortable to know you’ve done something wrong, and it’s a legal decision and there’s some sort of legal decision brought against you, or that your name is implied or involved in,” Hackett said. “That’s not a comfortable situation, and I certainly wasn’t excited to see it go any further. But it was a real innocent sort of thing. I really didn’t have any idea, or I wouldn’t have done it.”

The Assembly originally planned to go into closed session to discuss whether to appeal the order to release the letters. Deputy Mayor Larry Crews, filling in for Cheryl Westover, said the discussion would take place in open session. The Assembly agreed, and then voted unanimously to not appeal.
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