The Sitka Assembly is going to authorize an independent investigation of the police department — maybe. On a split vote this week (3-26-19) the assembly authorized spending up to $35,000 to hire an investigator, but not until after a new interim chief has had a chance to weigh in on what some describe as a toxic workplace culture. The action narrowly passed a first reading, with only five of seven members present.

The Sitka Assembly subcommittee took three weeks to research the potential for an outside investigation of the Sitka Police Department. Assembly member Richard Wein said the team prepared a list of candidates for consideration..

“Our approach has to be, I’ll say, fairly perfect. We can’t get somebody who isn’t experienced,” Wein said. “We need somebody who is going to do a good job and whose report will be accepted as legitimate.”

The decision to move forward with an investigation comes after conversation about the police department’s workplace culture unfolded at an assembly meeting in February.

Last fall, two detectives filed suit against the city: Ryan Silva filed a whistleblower suit in August, and Mary Ferguson filed suit in October, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. Then, in February, former jailer Noah Shepherd filed suit, alleging he suffered slander and abuse from upper management. All are being represented by the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project.

At their February 28th meeting, news of the third lawsuit led assembly members Aaron Bean, Richard Wein and Kevin Mosher to form a subcommittee that would consider an independent investigation. But Wein said that there has been  a new development.

“However, something happened on the way to the forum. There was the suggestion at AML of a fellow by the name of Robert Baty.”

Wein was referring to the recent hire of interim police chief Robert Baty to replace current police chief Jeff Ankerfelt, who is retiring this summer. City Administrator Keith Brady announced the hire during his update to the assembly. Baty most recently worked in Whittier, Alaska as Director of the Department of Public Safety.

Wein said he was concerned that hiring an independent investigator could undermine Baty’s authority as the new leader of the department.

Mosher said he agreed with Wein, and said he would be in favor of holding off on choosing an investigator but he still wanted to earmark the money.

“The intent of the assembly has been accomplished in the hiring of Mr. Baty,” he said. “I think it would be a good fit, I’m hoping. So I would be in favor of Dr. Wein’s idea, of tabling deciding on someone today, but approving the funds on the first reading. So if we’re not pleased with what Mr. Baty says, we can go ahead and choose someone.”

Assembly member Kevin Knox said he didn’t think the move to hire an outside investigator would set the right tone for the interim chief’s first days on the job.

“I personally don’t feel like it would be a very welcoming gesture for him to come in with us yielding a sword of sorts to get him to do, you know, whatever it is that we are looking for him to do,” he said.

Shepherd, Ferguson and multiple officers listened from the audience. And during public testimony, Ferguson said she was concerned that the city was bringing in a new chief before an independent investigation got off the ground.

“We obviously need a new police chief, but I’m kind of concerned with bringing in a police chief right now with what is going on in the police department,” she said. “There is cancer at that police department, so why would you not cure what is going on first before you put this burden on the police chief.”

Ultimately the assembly decided to continue discussion and consider candidates for the outside investigation at their first regular meeting in April, with more assembly members present. They voted 4 to 1 in favor of setting aside $35,000 for the investigation, on first reading, with assembly member Kevin Knox opposed. Mayor Gary Paxton and Deputy Mayor Stephen Eisenbeisz were absent.

The Sitka Assembly also took a step toward the sale of an unused piece of tidelands to a local marine salvage business.

Lee Hanson, of Hanson Maritime Company, has expressed interest in purchasing the utility dock at Gary Paxton Industrial Park from the city. The dock has not been in use for nearly two decades, and Hanson proposes to repair it and use the structure for operating his business.

The utility dock is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. Built in 1958, it was showing significant wear by 1977. Hanson Maritime wants to invest $100,000 to make repairs — and to take ownership. (GPIP image capture)

But City Attorney Brian Hanson said there was some concern that the city could be in a vulnerable legal position if they sold the condemned structure.

“There’s a 19-year-old study that says that that dock should not be used for anything,” Hanson said. “And it’s 19 years later. And if it’s used for something, and the risk for the city is that we transfer a dock that we have knowledge of that has some risk.”

Assembly member Aaron Bean asked if they could disclose that risk in the sale documents and reduce the city’s risk of being sued.

“If we give the disclosure that says ‘Hey Lee, this study- 19 years old- it says this place is condemned. Shouldn’t be used for anything. Just so you know that.’ Are we allowed to do that?” Bean asked.

Hanson, who helped prepare the request for proposal, said he included a “buy as is” section in the documents. But he said the city isn’t like a private individual.

“Sometimes we get sued like we did in the landslide. Because we sold those properties, those real properties, to the litigants that sued us for that. And we sold them with ‘as is’ type of deeds,” Hanson said.

Ultimately, assembly members unanimously voted in favor of appropriating $20,000 in available industrial park funds to hire legal counsel to develop a sale agreement for the property.  They also voted in favor of several appropriations for FY19 on first reading, including funds to improve the access ramp at the industrial park and funds to appraise the market value of airport subleases.

The assembly narrowly voted in favor of the Alaska Arts Southeast and Sitka Maritime Heritage Society subgrant program application.  The grant, if awarded, would establish a grant program through the city that would award grants for local historic preservation and restoration projects. The assembly voted to support the application 4-1 on first and final reading with Assembly member Kevin Mosher voting against

In other business, the assembly also voted unanimously against a relocation of a public transit stop at Harrigan Centennial Hall. And they unanimously approved a joint letter to Governor Mike Dunleavy in opposition to the repeal of school bond debt reimbursement.