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Assembly to screen attorney applicants

Municipal Attorney Theresa Hillhouse works in her office at city hall. She’s leaving the job in March, after more than seven years. A dozen people have applied to take her place. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Twelve people have applied to be Sitka’s next municipal attorney. Theresa Hillhouse is stepping down in March after more than seven years on the job. And members of the Sitka Assembly will meet Wednesday night to pick finalists to replace her.

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The dozen applications include two from Sitka, four from elsewhere in Alaska, and six from out of state. Some have more than 30 years of experience, and a couple applicants aren’t attorneys at all.

All of them are applying for a big job.

“The job of the attorney for the City and Borough of Sitka is more difficult than it appears from the outside,” said Cliff Groh, who held the position from 2000 until 2005. “You don’t have colleagues directly. You can hire some outside counsel to help you some, but you have a budget and you have to watch that.”

The municipal attorney deals with contract law, commercial law, parliamentary procedure, ballot law, and even criminal law. In Sitka, they prosecute certain offenses, including traffic tickets and ordinance violations.

And then there are the finer points of the job, such as practicing discretion and confidentiality in a small town, where you’re as likely to run into an adversary in the produce section as you are in the courtroom.

“It’s sort of like being a doctor in a small town,” he said. “One doctor in Sitka told me that one of the blessings in his job was that he had a short memory, in terms of not remembering what certain people’s private parts look like later, when he ran into them on the street.”

Being municipal attorney might not be quite that sensitive, but there are a lot of legal waters to navigate, and a lot of political boulders to avoid along the way.

That’s why Groh says hiring the position is tricky. His advice?

“Look for somebody who wants the job for the right reasons,” he said.

Yeah, the person has to want to live in Sitka, and has to have the right qualifications, but also, Groh says it has to be someone who has what he calls “the requisite attitude and judgment.”

“Look for somebody who can work with an administrator,” he said. “They’re going to have to work closely with the administrator and work closely with other people – a variety of other people in the whole city and borough government, on a whole variety of aspects.”

Groh lives in Anchorage now. He’s not involved in the hiring process, and although he thought briefly about applying for his old Sitka job again, he says life is different now and he’s staying put. He practices law privately and does a little writing, too.

As for the hiring process: Assembly members will screen candidates on Wednesday, before deciding on finalists to invite to Sitka for an in-person interview.

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