Two vastly different, closely watched court cases last week came to similar conclusions: Process is important. It doesn't matter how well intentioned all parties are; there is a right way and a wrong way to do things.
In one case, Kenai Superior Court Judge Harold Brown granted the Friends of the Recreation Center a preliminary injunction against the city of Kenai, agreeing with the Friends group that the city failed to follow its own rules when awarding a contract to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula to manage the Kenai Recreation Center.
The ruling voids the contract between the city and the Boys and Girls Clubs, but leaves some options on how to resolve the matter.
In the other case, a jury found Jeff Webster guilty of two counts of harassment and one count of interfering with constitutional rights after he threw water on a group of residents protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq.
In essence, the jury ruled that part of what being an American is all about is being allowed to speak openly and freely and there are appropriate ways to disagree with one another. Throwing water on those who disagree with us even if the intent is not to violate their civil rights but to encourage them to move to a different location is not one of those ways.
In both cases, it was process, not facts, that were in dispute.
Webster, for example, admitted dousing the protesters. In fact, he originally had planned to plead guilty to all charges.
At the heart of the Kenai dispute is whether the management of the rec center is a professional service and as such is exempt from competitive bid requirements. The city argued it is a professional service; the Friends said it is not. While the Kenai Municipal Code defines contractual services, it does not define professional services.
"While there is some visceral appeal to the argument that the city should be allowed to decide whether or not the services required are professional, the good intentions of the city manager and the compelling circumstances reflected in her affidavit are not enough to demonstrate a reasonable basis for the classification of the services to be provided as professional. The court cannot simply defer to the judgment of the city manager in light of the facts known to the court in this case and the clear language of the ordinance," Brown wrote.
We sympathize with the city. The contract with the Boys and Girls Clubs was an attempt to do right by Kenai residents by continuing services in a creative manner during tight budget times. Nevertheless, the argument by the Friends group and the decision by the judge is a reminder of how important it is to follow proper process. In government, once you open the door to exceptions to the rules, it's hard to close it.
The rub is city officials believe they were following proper process. They disagree with the judge's decision. Last week, they indicated they would consider whether to file an appeal.
Our unsolicited advice: Don't.
Enough time, money and energy has been spent on this issue. Time, money and energy that would have been better spent elsewhere youth programs, hunger programs, senior citizen programs, almost anything. Lean budgets make for poor timing when it comes to court fights. Especially when there are other options.
As for the Webster case, we also sympathize with a father whose son is at war. Under stress, everyone may behave in ways they wouldn't otherwise. That's one of the reasons we have laws to keep our actions from hurting other people. Laws establish acceptable boundaries of personal conduct. Mr. Webster stepped over those boundaries.
Both of these cases stirred strong feelings on both sides. Both still retain a "what next?" element.
In the rec center case, the judge encouraged the different parties "to discuss the possibility of some arrangement which would allow the Boys and Girls Club to continue management of the facility pending whatever action is deemed appropriate to the resolution of the case."
It's difficult for disagreements that already have landed in court to become friendly discussions later. However, we would encourage both the city and the Friends to make every attempt at such a course. In fact, it might be helpful for them to enlist the services of the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue. Those behind the center aim to give residents win-win options for solving problems, instead of the traditional way of one side wins and the other side loses. Maybe a solution for keeping the rec center open in lean budget times that would satisfy all parties could be found under the center's guidance.
Likewise, Mr. Webster's sentencing is scheduled for later in the month. If nothing else, this incident has fueled priceless discussion on community values, patriotism and civil rights.
It's too late now, but it's easy to wonder if a little extra effort in the discussion stage on the part of everyone involved couldn't have averted both of these cases from landing in court.
The real value of these cases could be if their legacy leads us to recognize that, for the most part, all community members want to do the right thing. We may disagree about what the right thing is, but the more we are able to hear and understand positions different from the ones we hold dear, the closer we become to reaching solutions that serve the good of the entire community.
We shouldn't have to go to court in order for the right thing to be done.
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