Borough attorney could be elected if initiative passes

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2007

Filling the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s attorney position could become a decision for the electorate if an initiative sought by a citizens group makes it to the ballot this fall and is approved by voters.

The Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers quietly filed an initiative petition application June 8 with Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs, who must decide by Friday if the application meets legal requirements.

Biggs said Tuesday that the application had been forwarded to Anchorage attorney Tom Klinkner for outside review. That review has not yet been completed, she said.

If approved, an ordinance would be placed before voters on the fall municipal ballot that would provide for an elected borough attorney position with a three-year term.

The chief administrator of the municipality appoints the municipal attorney. The current attorney, Colette Thompson, who declined to comment on the initiative application, has worked for the borough’s legal department since 1994. She was named acting borough attorney by Mayor Don Gilman in March 1996, and confirmed as the permanent attorney in late October 1996.

ACT, well known for past initiatives concerning the borough’s powers to tax, and which currently has three other initiatives pending legal review seeking term limits for assembly and school board seats, typically announces its ballot efforts in press releases, sometimes with great fanfare.

However, the group made no public announcement when it submitted the initiative application regarding an elected borough attorney.

Ruby Kime, of Ninilchik, an active member of ACT, said the group did that on purpose, but not because it wished to go under the radar. She said ACT just didn’t want to steal the thunder from the term limit initiatives.

“The term-limit thing is our primary concern right now,” she said Tuesday, adding that they decided just to wait and see whether the elected attorney initiative petition passed legal muster before making a detailed public statement.

Asked if electing future borough attorneys might rob the position of some measure of institutional memory, Kime said that concept was significantly over-embraced.

“Everything that counts is written down,” she said. “If it isn’t on paper, it isn’t (important). We are a written-down society.”

An elected attorney, she said, “would feel a greater obligation to respond to the will of the people, rather than to the guy who signs her paycheck.”

Kime said there were many issues on which she believes the public holds different views than the borough administration, “yet the administration’s view prevails.”

While under current law the mayor appoints the attorney, it is the voters who decide who holds that position, and Kime said she thinks voters might be ready to elect a new mayor, too.

Borough Mayor John Williams was taking part in assembly work sessions and was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon. However, his chief of staff, Tim Navarre, said electing a borough attorney was an idea fraught with pitfalls.

Nowhere in Alaska do voters name borough attorneys, and even the state has an appointed attorney general, he said.

High on a list of concerns would be setting criteria and qualifications for those who would run of the office. It could be highly problematic, for instance, if a person were elected who lacked the kind of wide-ranging, practical experience in civil, legislative and budget law considered essential for the borough job.

“The borough attorney represents the borough, the school district and the service areas,” Navarre said, “and makes legal interpretations for all parties so they can make good sound decisions.”

The attorney “is not owned” by any one official or political subdivision, he added. “That person is not allowed to break the law for any of those entities.”

ACT originally submitted initiative petition applications seeking not only an elected attorney, but also an elected assessor and clerk. They withdrew the latter two, however.

“You have to question where they (ACT members) are coming from,” Navarre said. “These are very technical jobs. Even the mayor isn’t allowed to hire someone who is not qualified.”

Navarre said the borough attorney was doing her job, not playing politics, and suggested making the position an elected position was a good way to render that position highly political.

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