Kenai group hires lawyer

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

A contentious issue that has been debated in Kenai City Council meetings and work sessions for the past several months may be discussed in court, as well.

The Friends of the Recreation Center group is threatening to sue the city of Kenai over issues surrounding the council's approval of a partnership agreement between the city and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula that contracts the club to run the Kenai Recreation Center starting July 1.

The council voted to approve the partnership agreement May 21 and voted to approve its fiscal year 2004 budget June 4, which includes the rec center contract.

In response to the council's approval of the contract, the Friends group started a referendum petition to have the citizens of Kenai vote on whether the Boys and Girls Club should run the center on the October ballot.

According to Mark Necessary of Kenai, chair of the Friends of the Recreation Center, the group has collected enough signatures from Kenai voters to make the petition valid.

"It was amazing how many people in the city of Kenai are unhappy with the Kenai City Council," he said. "They had the same frustration we feel they've been ignored, not only on this kind of situation, but there's numerous stories we'd heard from people that we weren't even aware of."

The group plans to submit the petition to the city clerk Monday, according to Necessary.

If the city doesn't accept the petition, Necessary said his group will proceed with a lawsuit.

"We'll submit the petitions, and if there's not a response out of the city, we'll go ahead and file our suit," he said. "... We're asking that the city let the people of Kenai be able to vote on this. That's obviously what the people want."

If the petition is found to be valid and have the required amount of signatures from qualified Kenai voters, the city charter dictates it must be accepted.

The Friends group has enlisted John Havelock, an Anchorage attorney and past state attorney general, to its cause.

"We presented our argument to him, so he feels there's grounds for a suit there," Necessary said.

Havelock sent a letter to Kenai Mayor John Williams and City Manager Linda Snow on June 13 on behalf of the Friends group protesting the council's approval of the partnership agreement and outlining the grounds on which the group may file suit.

In the letter, Havelock charges that the city violated the Kenai Municipal Code by not putting the contract to run the center through a competitive bidding process. He also charges the city violated the Alaska Open Meetings Act by not providing reasonable public notice of the council meetings in which the partnership agreement and the budget were voted on and by not asking for public testimony before voting on the partnership agreement in the June 21 meeting.

Snow said the city is treating the matter as confidential for litigation purposes, so she would not comment on Havelock's charges. As of Friday, she did say that no formal suit had been brought against the city.

"I have not received any official word of any kind of a lawsuit," she said. "If they decide that that is the route that they want to go, I'm sure I would be the the first to know. ... Every citizen in America has every right to sue anyone else in America or the government, that is one thing anyone can do."

Havelock requested in his letter that the council remedy the alleged violations by rescinding its votes to approve the partnership agreement and the fiscal year 2004 budget with the rec center contract included, and direct the city's administration to conduct a competitive bidding process to select a contractor to run the rec center with reasonable public notice given before any council actions are taken on the matter. These steps were requested to be taken by the council's June 18 meeting.

Necessary said his group did not receive a response from the council or city administration.

Snow said since it has hired a lawyer and the matter is being dealt with confidentially, the city is no longer directly responding to the Friends group.

Williams confirmed he did receive the letter. The council did not take the actions requested in the letter in its June 18 meeting.

"The demand letter came requesting that it be done on the 18th, and ironically enough the demand letter actually requests us to violate the law in the same manner in which they are accusing us of violating the law," Williams said, regarding requirements for giving reasonable public notice as stipulated in the Alaska Open Meetings Act.

"I found that rather ironic that the former attorney general, in interpreting the law in an accusatory manner, would demand that the city, in his eyes, violate it once again."

Williams also would not comment on the specific charges made in Havelock's letter.

"At this point in time, because they've hired attorneys, none of us are going to say anything about it," he said. "I think the legal aspects of this thing are pretty well spelled out in the (city charter and Alaska Open Meetings Act). The interpretation of those laws will now be left to the attorneys and the judge."

The referendum petition is not being treated as confidential, however.

"We are working on that together," Snow said. "That isn't in any way adversarial; that is their right to do that and that is our responsibility (to deal with them on it)."

Necessary said he hopes the matter does not proceed to a lawsuit.

"We hope it doesn't go any further," he said. "We don't want to spend the city's money and our money either."

But he said the group won't give up on its desire to have the matter go to a public vote. If the group does file suit against the city, Necessary said it will ask for financial assistance from the community to support the litigation costs.

"Well, we're not going to go away," he said. "If they won't give the people a chance to vote on it, we're going to take them to court."

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