Municipal Attorney Theresa Hillhouse talks to the Assembly at a Wednesday night meeting about hiring her replacement. Hillhouse is leaving her position March 1, and has been helping to vet her successor. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

The Sitka Assembly will interview two of the 12 applicants for municipal attorney: Allen Bell, of Sitka, and Wasilla lawyer Robin Koutchak.

Bell has been staff attorney to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska since late 2011, and, although new to the Alaska bar, has more than 30 years of legal experience. Most of that was spent in Illinois, in two rural counties on the state’s east side. He’s a 1980 graduate of the Indianapolis Law School of Indiana University.

Koutchak has less total time as a lawyer, but more experience in Alaska. She’s currently in private practice in Wasilla. She moved to the state in 1992 after earning a law degree at the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University. She’s been assistant attorney for the North Slope Borough, assistant attorney general and assistant district attorney for the state of Alaska out of Barrow, and has extensive private practice work on her resume.

The Assembly asked former municipal attorney Cliff Groh to review their applications, and three others. But one voice will be missing from the table: Sitka’s current administrator.

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At a special meeting Wednesday night to begin the hiring process, Assembly members voted down a motion to include Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley in the discussion process. Mike Reif, who made the motion, was the only one to vote yes.

“Actually, it wasn’t just Mr. Dinley,” he said. “It’s actually a group of people.”

Reif said he didn’t feel qualified to hire a municipal attorney on his own. He said it’s important to know how an attorney will work with the administrator, the public, and city staff.

“And I wanted to get those kind of voices on there so I could have those sets of eyes evaluate what we had in front of us for applications, in saying, yes, these are the skills sets you need for this, this and this,” he said.

But Mayor Mim McConnell says Assembly members have a good reason for not inviting Dinley into the talks.

“The administrator and attorney positions are equal positions on the city flow chart,” McConnell said. “They’re both employees of the Assembly, and one does not have authority over the other.”

By charter, only the Assembly hires the attorney. But McConnell says Dinley’s voice, and the voices of other city staff, will still be heard.

“The administrator and department heads and any member of the public will have the opportunity, when this gets voted on, to give their input about these people,” she said.

Thor Christianson added that it could also be awkward if the Assembly hired someone that city staff publicly recommended against, and then they had to work together.

John Stein was Sitka’s municipal administrator when the Assembly hired Theresa Hillhouse in 2005.

“I think I had an opportunity to make input during the interviews, but the Assembly made the decision,” Stein said.

Stein says in a lot of other municipalities, the attorney works as part of the staff, under the administrator’s supervision.

“And it’s interesting here,” he said of Sitka’s system. “It sort of provides a check-and-balance between the Assembly and the administration.”

But the administrator and the attorney aren’t necessarily adversaries, either. Stein says he had a good working relationship with both Theresa Hillhouse and her predecessor, Cliff Groh.

“And I think that’s important to have,” he said. “But it’s really the Assembly’s decision.”

Dinley came to Wednesday night’s meeting and sat in the audience for about an hour. Reached by phone on Thursday, he said the charter is pretty clear about who hires the attorney. Asked if he wanted a stronger voice in the process, he said, “I don’t think that’s my call.”

The Assembly, meanwhile, is moving quickly. In-person interviews are scheduled for February 8th.

McConnell says ideally, the Assembly could make the hire before Hillhouse leaves the job March 1. Hillhouse will stay on for four months at half her salary to aid in a transition.

But McConnell and other Assembly members also seemed to agree Wednesday night that if none of the candidates are what they’re looking for, they’ll keep looking.

Said Assembly member Matt Hunter: “Paying an outside attorney for six months is still better than hiring someone we don’t want.”