Local News

Ballot prop attorney says Sitka in litigation “smorgasbord”

The plaintiffs in a four-year-old citizen lawsuit against the City of Sitka are asking the superior court to allow their local ballot proposition to move forward.

Joe Geldhof, the attorney for Sitkans for Responsible Government, this week filed a response to arguments made earlier in the summer by the city that claimed the ballot proposition remains confusing and illegal – despite a Supreme Court ruling suggesting otherwise.

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Sitkans for Responsible Government is the name Jeff Farvour and Mike Litman gave their two-man organization in 2008, when they tried to put a question on Sitka’s municipal ballot. Although this case has been going on for four years, the ballot question itself is not complicated. Farvour and Litman want to give voters the authority to ratify the sale of any municipal property at Sawmill Cove worth over $500,000, and to ratify the lease of municipal property out there worth over $750,000.

Their numbers are not arbitrary, and their language (in the view of the Supreme Court) is not confusing. In fact, this is exactly how Sitka General Code covers municipal property transactions everyplace else but Sawmill Cove.

Read municipal attorney Theresa Hillhouse’s letter to the editor outlining her perspective on the issues here.
Read the City of Sitka’s media release on the remanded case here.
Read the City of Sitka’s Supplemental Brief on Remand here.
Read SRG’s Opposition Brief here.

Nevertheless, the City of Sitka – led by municipal attorney Theresa Hillhouse – has resisted the ballot proposition tooth-and-nail: first, by refusing to certify the initiative petition, despite its having the required number of signatures, and second, by continuing to fight the matter after Litman and Farvour took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court – and, for the most part, won.

Find previous stories, the Supreme Court ruling, and Theresa Hillhouse’s written response here.

The justices gave the city an opening, however, by remanding the case back to the trial court in Sitka to resolve some arguments raised during the proceedings, but not specifically appealed before the Supreme Court. And that’s where things stand now. Sitka filed its supplemental briefing back in July, and Sitkans for Responsible Government has filed its official response.

In the eleven-page document, attorney Joe Gelhof responds to the city’s persistent claim that allowing voters to ratify property sales constitutes an “illegal appropriation.” He writes, “While the proposed initiative obviously deals with a public asset, the measure… does not result in the allocation of an asset entirely to one group at the expense of another.” In fact, Geldhof says, “The proposed initiative is the antithesis of a ‘give away’ program and is actually structured to serve as a check on the potentially misguided disposal of public assets.”

Geldhof notes that the trial court back in 2008 did not find the proposed initiative to contain an illegal appropriation, and the city did not appeal the issue.

That the city brings it up again now, Geldhof finds “curious.” He writes, “The city should not now be allowed to again argue an issue previously decided as if judicial proceedings were like some kind of decisional smorgasbord with an endless opportunity to litigate, re-litigate, and litigate again a position on which a ruling has been entered.”

The brief concludes by asking the Sitka Superior Court to find the proposed initiative “sufficient under relevant law” and allow the citizens to vote on it.

When that will happen is anyone’s guess. A hearing before a judge, including possible oral arguments, has yet to be scheduled.

Hear excerpts of an interview KCAW conducted with Municipal Attorney Theresa Hillhouse, by clicking here.

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