Local News

Judge hears arguments in Sawmill Cove case

Lawyers on either side of a lawsuit against the City of Sitka made arguments in a case dealing with a measure that would require voter approval before the city sells or leases land at the site of a former pulp mill.

The group Sitkans for Responsible Government circulated a petition in 2008. Their initiative would have required a vote before the city disposed of property at what is now known as Sawmill Cove Industrial Park.

But the city wouldn’t certify the initiative, and so the petition’s backers, Mike Litman and Jeff Farvour, sued. The case made its way up to the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled on certain issues in the case, deciding in favor of the petition backers. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Superior Court for another look.

And so, Friday’s hearing.

Lawyer Michael Gatti, arguing for the city, said one of the main issues is that the initiative would allow voters to make an appropriation. That power is reserved for the Assembly. By giving voters the ability to essentially veto a project at Sawmill Cove Industrial Park, the initiative would let them divert money away from the park. That’s an appropriation, Gatti argued.

He cited a case in Kenai, where the court said voters cannot use the initiative process to control money.

Joe Geldhof, representing Farvour and Litman, disagreed that the initiative proposed by his clients would make any appropriations. He said Sitka’s codes already require voter approval for the sale or lease of property over a certain amount, and that all his clients wanted to do was remove the exemption for the industrial park.

The hearing comes a day after Superior Court Judge David George granted a motion by Geldholf to strike the city’s argument that his client’s petition was confusing and misleading. He said the Supreme Court explicitly said it wasn’t, and that the matter should not be part of the current arguments.

In court on Friday, George asked questions of both attorneys but did not issue a ruling on the entire case. He says he’ll take the matter under advisement and rule later. The hearing lasted about 90 minutes.

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