Gary Paxton Industrial Park, as it appeared before the development of the Silver Bay Seafoods plant. The 2008 voter initiative proposed by Sitkans for Responsible Government was intended to give Sitkans control over large land disposals in the park. The city attorney at the time, however, Theresa Hillhouse, refused to put it on the ballot. In 2012 the Alaska Supreme Court rejected the city’s argument and ruled that the initiative should have gone forward. Now, the city is resurrecting some of the logic behind that case to justify repealing voter approval of large land disposals throughout the community. (SEDA photo)

Voters will no longer have the authority to ratify major land transactions in Sitka, if a proposed amendment to local code passes a second reading.

The Sitka Assembly last week (4-25-18) on first reading repealed language requiring voter approval, in order to lower barriers to some prospective large sales.

The move raised questions about the city’s plans over the future of Sitka Community Hospital, among other issues.

Downloadable audio.

The ordinance requiring voter approval of major land sales and leases has been on the books for a long time in Sitka. So long, in fact, that resident Travis Hudson wondered why the assembly was suddenly considering a repeal.

“Why is it now being fast-tracked? I think it’s to prevent citizens from voting on the future of our hospital.”

The City of Sitka last summer issued a request for proposals for virtually any kind of management scheme for Sitka Community Hospital, including a potential sale. Prior to the RFP, both the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and a local hotel owner expressed interest in purchasing the facility.

But city administrator Keith Brady pushed back. He said the voter requirement — for sales of more than $500,000 and leases greater than $750,000 — hamstrung the city’s ability to do business.

“This doesn’t have to do with the hospital. It’s just land and public assets that the city has. The direction that the assembly has given me is to look at selling property. To get it off our books, so we have more property that’s taxable. And this would help us do that a lot quicker.”

Brady conceded that the hospital was mentioned in his memo to the assembly, so that there “would be no illusion that this isn’t a part of it.” But he also described other municipal assets like the Marine Services Center and No-Name Mountain, a potential quarry site.

Brady told the assembly that current municipal code did not conform to the Alaska Constitution. Municipal attorney Brian Hanson elaborated.

“Any act where you would give your duty to appropriate and make decisions with regard to funds to the electorate would be unconstitutional, and could be subject to challenge by a lawsuit if you were to do that.”

Hanson was echoing an opinion of Anchorage-based attorney Michael Gatti, who serves as outside counsel to Sitka. Gatti prepared a brief for the assembly describing the act of selling land or property as an “appropriation,” and hence the exclusive purview of local government — not local voters.

The argument Gatti makes is similar to the one he and then-municipal attorney Theresa Hillhouse made in 2012, when the Alaska Supreme Court struck down the city’s efforts to block a referendum which would have extended the rights of Sitka voters to ratify land sales in the Gary Paxton Industrial Park, which remains exempted from the requirement.

Assembly member Richard Wein didn’t have this history at his fingertips, but he sensed that the proposed change would be a loss for Sitka voters, and a gain for city hall.

“I’ll start off saying that seeking voter approval is unconstitutional? I’ll call that a ‘wow’.”

He questioned why the voter ratification of land sales was unconstitutional, when other voter initiatives involving actual appropriations — like bond sales for the Blue Lake dam — were not.

Wein didn’t think two readings gave Sitkans sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

“It seems to me there’s a give-and-take, and checks and balances. You have the citizens, whose actual property this is, offering an opinion. And I know that won’t change Mr. Gatti and it won’t change the constitution. But I do believe that the people of Sitka really need to know that this is now taking things out of your hands and subjecting it solely to the assembly.”

Wein’s previous outspoken advocacy for Sitka Community Hospital, however, may have limited the impact of his ideas. Several other assembly member agreed in principle with Gatti’s legal opinion — Ben Miyasato, in fact, said that his constituents frequently asked him why more municipal property wasn’t going on the market.

Muncipal attorney Brian Hanson, however, considered Wein’s remarks to be an affront.

“The opinion that I’m giving as to whether or not this code section is unconstitutional — it’s an opinion. But it’s something that I give seriously, without any intent to be a proponent or opponent of anything that’s happening, whether it’s the Sitka Community Hospital RFP, sales of the Marine Services Center or anything that happens with our property. And I am offended by some comments and some looks that someone’s trying to besmirch the work that I do and the opinions that I give.”

Wein responded that he was arguing with the effects of Hanson’s and Gatti’s legal opinion — not with the opinion itself. “Again the people need to know,” he said, “that they are losing something with this (opinion about) ‘constitutionality.” Wein was the only “no” vote on first reading.

The proposed repeal of voter ratification of Sitka land sales will require a second reading and vote before becoming law.