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Future ordinance could remove ratification on land sales

Earlier this week, Joe Geldhof, the attorney for Sitkans for Responsible Government, filed his argument in the continuation of a citizen lawsuit against the city of Sitka.

You can hear that story, and read documents in the case from both sides, here.

Jeff Farvour and Mike Litman, representing the group Sitkans for Responsible Government, have been suing the city since 2008 to get an initiative placed on the ballot. The measure would require a public vote before the city sells property at Sawmill Cove Industrial Park worth over $500,000, or leases anything worth over $750,000.

The case was brought back to life in April by the Alaska Supreme Court. Justices said the initiative wasn’t confusing, as the city argued, and sent the matter back to the Sitka court for another look.

The city argues that the language isn’t legal – that citizens cannot bring forward an initiative that gives them the power of appropriation. But Sitka already has such an ordinance on its books — for everywhere except the industrial park.

So if the city argues the citizen initiative isn’t legal, then what about what’s already in city code?

Municipal attorney Theresa Hillhouse told KCAW on Thursday that an ordinance will come forward at the Assembly table in the near future that repeals the ratification vote now required for the sale or lease of certain city property worth over half a million dollars.

She says the Assembly will still be able to ask citizens for an advisory vote.

In July, the Sitka Assembly decided to stay the course on defending the initiative lawsuit. Hillhouse briefed the Assembly in a closed session on July 25. The Assembly then voted in open session to continue its defense.

KCAW spoke with Hillhouse shortly after the Sitka Assembly voted to continue defending the lawsuit.

“Sitka and other communities have been faced with initiative type issues for years,” Hillhouse said in a July 27 interview. “In this particular one, we deal with issues that are currently before not only Sitka, but have actually been decided in a recent Alaska Supreme Court decision involving the Kenai Peninsula.”

In the Kenai case, the borough rejected an initiative that would let voters ratify any construction projects over $1 million dollars. The Alaska Supreme Court said appropriations cannot be decided by citizen initiative – that only the elected representative government has that power.

Here’s an excerpt of Hillhouse’s interview with KCAW:

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KCAW: Is it too simple to say that the case boils down to the notion that it is the Assembly’s purview to spend the city’s money, and nobody else’s, that’s why we elect the Assembly. Is that kind of …?

Hillhouse: That’s it. In a nutshell, the court decision that recently came out, not only is it their purview but it’s their obligation to make those decisions.

KCAW: Why not give citizens a chance to be an extra check on a representative body?

Hillhouse: Besides the fact we already have the current laws that restrict it, the bottom line is this: To administer a city, decide how to split the funds, do budgets, deal with daily projects, if you had to go out to a public vote each time that occurs, you’re going to have a dead zone with the government. They’re not going to be able to act, they can’t timely move. So everything from ‘Hey, should we spend money on potholes…,” OK, let’s set up an election right now, with Alaska required to go through Department of Justice, that’s a two-month delay. You’ve got to get your ballots ready, you’ve got to get it advertised, you’ve got to get your vote in. You’re probably talking a six-month delay by the time you decide an issue needs to go to the public. You can’t run government and provide services to people if you’re in that kind of framework.

KCAW: And I’m pushing on this because I want absolute clarity. This isn’t saying that. This says just this one area, this industrial park, we are interested in how the land is disposed of, and so we the public want a say. Their initiative is very narrow in scope. That feels like apples and oranges to them, I think.”

Hillhouse: And what the court cases have said is, anytime the city has municipal resources in assets – that’s going to include your money, it could be your utilities that you provide, your property, your personal property … any time you have those items – it’s going to be up the Assembly to make the hard decisions and decide how do I give this money away? How do I spend this money? They’ve got to consider all the citizen groups, not only those who might show up to vote or sign off on an initiative. That’s the way we’re set up in our form of government. It has to do with all our municipal property – all our municipal assets. That’s set by the Alaska Constitution that says voters cannot, by initiative, decide issues that deal with appropriations, which are basically assets.”

 

 

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