Fairbanks council considering prolonged legal fight

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Fairbanks City Council is considering more legal battles with a pair of former firefighters whose $1.6 million judgment has been upheld by the state Supreme Court.

The council met in secret Monday to discuss the city's options in its prolonged court fight with Jim Rice and Lee Despain.

The discussions come a month after city officials said they were going to settle the case, and that Rice and Despain would be paid by early April.

The council remained tight-lipped following their session.

''It's always a tossup when it comes to court cases,'' said Councilman Scott Kawasaki. ''My big question is, 'Can the city win something after losing such a big court case?'''

Kawasaki said the council was carefully weighing its choices. ''We're going to do what's right for this city.''

The Alaska Supreme Court last month backed a lower court's verdict that the city had violated the civil rights of Rice and Despain. The jury award -- $496,000 plus nearly $1.1 million in attorneys fees and interest -- sent the council scrambling for cash.

In 1994, Rice and Despain reported that the then-public safety director Mike Pulice was overstating his compensatory time. They sued the city in July 1995, claiming that Pulice threatened them and that the city had failed to provide adequate protection.

In March 1997, a Superior Court jury ruled in favor of the two men on every point of their claim that the city had denied them free speech, threatened their jobs and violated the state Whistleblower Act.

Tom Wickwire, Despain's attorney, said he had submitted to the city four settlement options, and that on Monday he received a letter from City Attorney Herb Kuss rejecting them all.

''This is another round,'' Wickwire said. ''We'll probably be waiting for the arbitrator's decision, which will change the strength of either hand.''

The arbitrator is to decide whether the city must rehire Despain. Rice also has a pending request to be rehired.

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