In Sitka, properties valued over $500,000 cannot be sold without voter approval. City administration say that’s unconstitutional and limits the potential for economic growth. An ordinance on the agenda last night (05-08-19) that would give the Assembly the power to decide all land sales was postponed. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Under current city code, any major sale of municipal property in Sitka requires a vote of the people. This law has been around a long time, but hasn’t been used much. Now, some see it as an impediment to progress. As Sitka’s government looks to free up land for development, the Assembly is embroiled in an intense debate over whether to repeal the law or just update it.

During their regular meeting Tuesday night (05-08-18), the Assembly also approved funding an in-depth landslide study near hillside schools, rifle grade protections for Sitka police and fire, and the installation of five new cell service poles to be operated by GCI. The meeting will continue at 6 p.m. tonight (05-09-18) at Harrigan Centennial Hall, where they’ll have their first reading of the budget and vote on a proposal to raise to legal age of tobacco sales to 21. Raven News will not be broadcasting the meeting, but will provide a live stream over our Facebook page.

Downloadable audio.

Sitka’s City Administrator Keith Brady wants to make it easier to sell municipal land. He cited the Marine Service Center, Sitka Community Hospital, and No Name Mountain as examples in a memo (Motion and Memos Ord 2018-18) to the Assembly.

Right now, properties like those valued at $500,000 or more require a public vote in order to be sold. The same goes for leases over $75,000. Instead of waiting for an election to roll around with a question on the ballot, Brady’s ordinance proposes putting the power of land disposal in the hands of the Assembly instead.

Nearly all the citizens that came forward Tuesday night protested that idea in the strongest of terms. 

Valerie Nelson: Giving an administration the power to decide about disposal of large tracts of public land with only the oversight of an Assembly that more often than not blanket approves whatever staff comes up with is very dangerous.

Mae Dunsing: I feel like this is a power grab. I’m a person and I’m intelligent. And I want to be able to vote.

Dunsing told the Assembly, “Whatever you decide, I have to pay for.” Others spoke to the timing of the ordinance and the perception that it’s being pushed to make it easier to theoretically sell Sitka Community Hospital. 

Dr. Marilyn Coruzzi fired a shot at the Assembly’s overall process. “Educate me. Communicate with me. But don’t make me feel like I’m being manipulated and I am isolated from you all,” said Corruzi.

“Us vs. them” was a big theme throughout citizen testimony, those opposed to the ordinance seeing it as a direct breach of public trust.

But attorney Mike Gatti, hired as outside counsel for the city on this matter, framed it another way. He said Sitka was caught in a classic legal battle between representative democracy and direct democracy. “Direct democracy is the citizens ability to adopt or repeal laws,” Gatti said.

Representative democracy means that citizens elect officials – their Assembly members and the mayor – to make those calls. That’s the direction both Gatti and City Attorney Brian Hanson want to move in, saying that current code is out of compliance with the Alaska Constitution.

This ordinance (Ord 2018-18) is also the direction the business community supports. Travis Vaughn, a realty broker, read a letter from the Sitka Chamber of Commerce basically saying that current code creates hurdles development.

“Serious real estate developers and investors avoid projects that require public referendum to move forward,” said Vaughn. “Every opinion is valid, but simply put the risk, resistance, and impracticality of a public referendum process would scare off anyone with the means to actually help anyone in this community.”

The Assembly was torn during second and final reading. They heard Vaughn loud and clear, recognizing that removing the referendum was a pro-business move.

Assembly member Ben Miyasato revealed that he was the one who asked Brady to put this issue on the agenda, all in the name of lowering the barrier for affordable housing development.

“Look at the price of the houses out there. They can’t afford it. I know that,” Miyasato said. “We need to do something. I thought the step we were taking were bold. It’s not going to be one the public is going to trust.” And, he added, this ordinance has nothing to do with Sitka Community Hospital.

 After lengthy debate, the Assembly came to a compromise. They voted unanimously to postpone their decision and consider less dramatic changes to the ordinance. For instance, they could raise the threshold on how pricy lands need to be in order to require a vote of the people. They voted unanimously to postpone any the decision and gather more information.