At the regular meeting of the Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (4/23/19), assembly members unanimously passed an agreement that changes how the Sitka Performing Arts Center is funded (KCAW/KWONG)

The Sitka Assembly, Tuesday night (4/23/19), approved an agreement with the Sitka School District and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp to fund the Sitka Performing Arts Center through FY2020. And while the assembly voted to fund several other projects, for the second time they failed to approve the hire of a new planning director on the basis of salary.

At the regular meeting of the Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (4/23/19), assembly members unanimously passed an agreement that changes how the Sitka Performing Arts Center is funded. On April 3rd, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp signed the agreement with the Sitka School Board to take on a major share of running the PAC, which costs around $240,000 to operate annually. Executive Director Roger Schmidt said the goal was to work with the city and the school district to keep the PAC open and running at all costs.

“With the budget cuts that the city and school district were facing from the state, it looked like some type of solution was needed,” he said. “We were willing to take another level of leadership on this, making some major adjustments to our budget, like everybody, because the PAC is not only essential to our kids in Sitka but also critical for the fine arts camp.”

Under the new agreement, the city will cover basic utility costs of the building for a total of $57,000. The school district will cover heat and insurance. And the Fine Arts Camp will absorb the remainder of the cost, around $112,000. Currently, the school district pays SFAC that amount to perform technical and professional management of the PAC, and under the new arrangement the fine arts camp would provide those services to the school district free of charge.

Though assembly members asked technical questions of the city’s financial and legal departments, none voiced opposition and the motion passed 7-0.

The assembly also approved an additional $200,000 for the Sitka Chamber of Commerce and “Visit Sitka” to continue providing visitor services for a total of $500,000 in funding for 2020.

Assembly member Valorie Nelson opposed the motion.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse,” Nelson said. “We still have several budget meetings. I’m not in favor of voting for this until I know where we’re at.”

Assembly member Richard Wein pushed for them to move ahead.

“300,000 for a city of this size’s marketing is nothing,” Wein said referring to the $300,000 the Sitka Chamber of Commerce would be left with if the assembly didn’t approve the supplemental funding.

The motion passed 4-3 with Nelson, Eisenbeisz, Bean voting against.

No new planning director

But while the assembly moved forward with the PAC agreement and funding for “Visit Sitka,” they did not approve a renegotiated hire offer for the city planning director position, which has been open since last August. At the last meeting, a motion to approve the hire of Bruce Wall, who currently works as a city planner in Soldotna, failed when some assembly members voiced opposition to Wall’s salary offer- $93,000 with $15,000 in moving expenses and starting annual leave banked at 40 hours.

The renegotiated offer presented by city staff at Tuesday’s meeting kept Wall’s salary the same but reduced the moving expenses and removed the banked leave. But for assembly member Aaron Bean, that wasn’t enough of a change.

“Mostly because the starting salary is not changed,” Bean said. “I think that a majority of this assembly was pretty clear on the reasoning as to why we said no the first time.”

Assembly member Valorie Nelson agreed and said she would be happier with a salary in the $90,000 range. During persons to be heard on the motion, interim planning director Scott Berlinski told assembly members that it was his last day on the job. He said the position could be tough to fill if the assembly didn’t vote to hire Wall.

“I understand that several small communities in Alaska are looking for planning directors. It’s apparently not an easy agenda to fill,” Berlinski said. “I believe the job as offered is not overpaid compared to other similar professional positions both outside and inside of city hall. I believe Sitka needs a planning director, and if we get to the end of the agenda tonight you’ll see that it is my last day of work, so I urge you to approve this hire.”

The motion to approve Wall’s hire failed 3-4 with assembly members Wein, Nelson, Mosher, and Bean voting against.

Executive sessions abound

The assembly spent nearly half of the meeting behind closed doors in three separate executive sessions- once to hear updates from legal counsel regarding litigation stemming from the 2015 landslide events, and once to discuss the liquor license renewal for Baranof Island Brewing Company.

The assembly also voted to postpone, until August, the hiring of a consultant to investigate the Sitka Police Department. This decision came after the assembly went into a third executive session to hear a report from interim police chief Robert Baty, who has been on the job less than a month.

The assembly began considering hiring a third party investigator in February after Noah Shepard, a former jailer and patrol officer recruit filed against the city. The assembly voted to allot $35,000 dollars toward hiring someone to investigate the department, but postponed choosing the consultant when Baty’s hire was announced, to allow him to make an assessment of the department first.

On Tuesday, as the assembly considered holding off on a consultant hire for another four months, Mary Ferguson expressed her disappointment. The patrol officer, who is currently on administrative leave, filed suit against the city in October, alleging that she had been sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace. She’s been pushing for an investigation of the department ever since.

“I was more than happy to stay in my position and serve the city,” Ferguson said during during public comment. “Right now if I’m not going to be listened to by the city or protected by my employer, then I don’t know if it’s really worth coming up and talking to you guys anymore.”

Ultimately, the assembly voted 6-1 in favor of waiting until August to choose an investigator, with assembly member Valorie Nelson opposed.

Cross Trail will not be rerouted

A plan extend the Cross Trail from Harbor Mountain to the Starrigavan boat launch will not be altered to make way for more economic development. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly, assembly members discussed the multi-year project that’s in its final stages.

The original route for phase six of the trail was set to go through an area of Granite Creek slated for development, so city administrator Keith Brady met with Sitka Trailworks Executive Director Lynne Brandon to discuss a possible alternate route.

“This alternate route does not delay the process at all, she can move forward,” Brady said. “Western Federal Lands- what they recommend is to award the contract and the best way to change the route, if necessary, is during construction to avoid any startup delays.”

Brady said the route, as it’s currently planned, crosses an area that would be turned into an “overburden site,” for rock and soil that’s removed during the development process. The new trail would be rerouted around the Granite Creek Quarry, as opposed to above it. Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz wondered how pleasant the trail would be if it were moved.

“Part of the cross trail to me is the beauty and the serenity of it,” Eisenbeisz said. “On a scale of one to ugly, how bad is it going to be to have a trail through the middle of a quarry?”

Brandon said it was not her preferred option, but she was willing to work with the city. And she said it was likely the reroute wouldn’t happen anyway, because her team had estimated the costs would be too high.

“I have an estimate of, it’s about a $371,000 dollar difference,” Brandon said said. “And that’s for the actual construction and to do the permitting.”

Assembly member Aaron Bean voiced surprise at the figure and asked Brandon if she expected the municipality to cover the cost. Brady said he didn’t anticipate a reroute would cost as much as Brandon’s estimate.

Eisenbeisz said he’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis of what the economic benefits would be for rerouting the trail compared to how much it could cost. And Valorie Nelson said she was in favor of leaving the trail as is. Kevin Mosher made a motion to leave phase six of the Cross Trail as is, and that motion passed 6-1 with Eisenbeisz opposed.

In other business…

In other business, they voted unanimously to reappoint Victor Weaver to a three-year term on the planning commission and Scott Saline to a three year term on the historic preservation commission.

The body approved two changes to city zoning code- one reducing the minimum lot size requirement, and the second designating a specific zone for cemeteries, which are currently zoned residential.

The assembly voted to appropriate funds for data storage upgrades, and earmarked funds for the Shepard v. CBS suit.

Assembly members also approved Baranof Island Brewing Company’s liquor license renewal application. And Rachel Roy presented interim police chief Robert Baty with an award naming Sitka the “Safest City in Alaska.”