Local News

After Sunday meeting, Assembly picks an attorney

Two days after interviewing finalists for the job, the Sitka Assembly has voted to offer the position of municipal attorney to Robin Koutchak.

If she accepts the job, she would replace Theresa Hillhouse, who is leaving the position March 1 and moving to Anchorage.

Koutchak is currently in private practice in Wasilla. Her resume in Alaska stretches back to 1992. She has worked in the municipal attorney’s office in Anchorage and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She’s also done contract work, including some for BP.

She was assistant municipal attorney for the North Slope Borough for a year and a half. And from 2007 to 2011, she worked as assistant attorney general and assistant district attorney in Barrow.

The job offer in Sitka comes after an executive session in City Hall on Sunday night. The Assembly emerged after about an hour and voted to make Koutchak the offer.

A special meeting to finalize the hire begins at 5:45 Tuesday inside Harrigan Centennial Hall, with the regular meeting to immediately follow.

Sunday’s special meeting was called Friday night. The public notice — required by law for such meetings — was posted to the city’s website.

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If you had walked past City Hall on Sunday it would have been difficult to tell anything was happening. The front of the building was locked, and the lights were off on the first floor. But the back door was unlocked, and the lights were on in a suite of offices on the third floor. Inside, Assembly members debated the merits of two finalists to replace Theresa Hillhouse.

Several Assembly members said they were moving quickly because they hope to put the new attorney in place before Theresa Hillhouse leaves the job on March 1. Also, they wanted to deliberate before Mayor Mim McConnell and Assembly member Phyllis Hackett left for a conference in Juneau on Monday morning.

“Just because it’s gone fast doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done carefully,” McConnell said after Sunday’s meeting. “We are kind of up against a time crunch with Theresa leaving March 1. She will be making herself available as much as she can through March, but she’s gotta go. She’s got to get up to her new job and she’s got to move, and it’s just … it’s going to make a really difficult transition if we can’t get somebody in here soon.”

The Assembly plans to keep Hillhouse on at about half her salary for four months to aid in the transition.

Reporters for KCAW and the Daily Sitka Sentinel spoke during the public testimony portion of Sunday’s special meeting. We said the public could not have been fully aware of the special meeting, which was announced at the end of Friday’s interviews, and posted to the city’s website. KCAW does not broadcast weekend newscasts, and the Daily Sitka Sentinel does not publish over the weekend.

One of the biggest proponents for a slow and deliberative process in hiring the attorney was Assembly member Mike Reif. During initial meetings, he said he wanted as many expert voices as possible to weigh in. And he echoed a sentiment many Assembly members held: That if a suitable candidate could not be found among the pool in front of them, they’d simply keep looking.

Sunday night, Reif said he was comfortable with the choice, despite the speed.

“The candidate we’re making the offer to is someone I think is extremely strong. If I had any doubt this wasn’t an exceptional candidate — in that eight, nine category on a scale of one to 10 — I’d be slowing this way down.”

The Assembly had help during the process from Hillhouse, as well as City Human Resources Director Mark Danielson and former Municipal Attorney Cliff Groh, who agreed to review some of the applications and offer his opinion.

Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley was not part of the process. He and the attorney both work directly for the Assembly, without supervisory authority over each other.

Assembly member Michelle Putz said the Assembly had heard from the public through e-mail comments. Also, those interested still have time to weigh in. The Assembly plans a special meeting before its regular session Tuesday.

Members will discuss, in executive session, any counteroffer Koutchak makes on the job, and then come into the open and vote whether to hire her. Public testimony is usually allowed before a vote.

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