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Utqiagvik name change to proceed for now

March 18th, 2017 | Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News Print this article   Email this article  

A Superior Court judge on Friday ruled the city of Utqiaġvik can keep working to fully implement its new name, suggesting through the preliminary decision that the name may stick long-term.

The village corporation, Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., is challenging the name change. UIC argued what was then the city of Barrow failed to follow its own laws in providing proper notice to the public when the City Council considered the name-change ordinance in August.

The ordinance put the proposed new name on the city's October ballot, and voters approved it by just six votes.

Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman said UIC failed to make a case that it would be substantially harmed by the city's continued work on the name change. He was appointed to hear the matter after the city bumped a Barrow judge.

Any harm already happened when the Council met in August, Roetman said. A ruling at this stage in the case is intended to prevent future, irreparable harms.

"Any harm that may exist from the lack of notice in itself was complete at the time of the council meeting at which the name-change ordinance was adopted," Roetman said in announcing his decision Friday morning in Utqiaġvik.

And Mayor Fannie Suvlu said in a statement filed in court that "no additional steps are needed to implement the name change," the judge noted.

An attorney for the city, Louisiana Cutler, said in court Thursday the city has done substantial work to change to Utqiaġvik, adopting a new logo, switching out its stationary and working with federal agencies, and on city code, to reflect the new name.

Roetman said the village corporation was unlikely to succeed overall, so he couldn't rule in its favor on that possibility. The corporation is seeking to undo what it calls a rushed and poorly conceived ordinance and, therefore, the election, forcing a switch back to Barrow.

Much of what has been playing out in court thus far has hinged on the technicalities of public notice, not whether Utqiaġvik is the right name for what used to be Barrow.

On Thursday, lawyers argued the question at hand is whether the city followed its own laws last summer when then-Barrow City Council approved a measure to let voters decide whether to change the name.

On one side was Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., the Alaska Native village corporation challenging the steps leading to the name change. On the other side, the city government is defending its actions, the will of voters and the new name. About 10 people listened in person to the arguments, including Utqiaġvik Mayor Fannie Suvlu, whose proposal for a new election on the matter was rejected by the council earlier this year.

Ultimately the court challenge by Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp. seeks to undo the ordinance allowing the October election, which would in turn void the October result itself and backtrack the name to Barrow, said Matt Singer, an attorney for UIC. The city then could call a new election, but do it properly, he told Kotzebue Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman, who stepped in after a Barrow judge was bumped by the city.

UIC is the largest property owner in the area with more than 200,000 acres of land and 2,900 shareholders, many of whom live there, Singer said.

A city law says that it must "publish" notices of proposed new ordinances so that the public isn't caught unaware, Singer told the judge. He argued that the notice must appear in a general circulation newspaper, which in the case of then-Barrow would be The Arctic Sounder. The state open meetings law also requires notice, he said.

"When the government is required to publish, that serves an important and overriding public policy," Singer said. "It protects the public. It promotes sound, rational decision-making. It gives the public an opportunity to be a part of the decision-making at the outset."

And, he said, "there's no wiggle room."

Representatives for the city said it followed the law and that the public had the final say in the matter through the general election.

The city posted notices for the name-change ordinance at seven locations around town, its practice in alerting the public to council meetings for the last 22 years, said Louisiana Cutler, one of the attorneys for Utqiaġvik.

Both sides agreed the city didn't run a notice in the newspaper before the Aug. 25, 2016, Barrow City Council meeting.

A separate part of city code specifies that notices for elections be published in a general circulation newspaper, which was done before the October city election.

But for proposed ordinances, the city code doesn't say where the notice must appear, only that it must be published.

Part of the debate was over whether Utqiaġvik even has a general circulation paper. Cutler said The Arctic Sounder only had 10 paid subscribers last August. While 200 papers are delivered to the community, 60 are given away and who knows how many of the other 140 are bought, she said.

But Singer said there's no doubt it's a newspaper and noted that many of its readers are online, part of a shift away from print across the country.

"There's news about sports, politics. There's regional news. There's statewide news. The content cannot be disputed," he said.

If the judge had sided with the village corporation on what the city called "a purely technical basis," it would have been blocked from additional steps to change its name, essentially rejecting the voters' will, Cutler said.

"And it was the election your honor, the most important thing in our democracy, that's how the public was protected in this particular instance. They got the right to vote and they voted to change the name," she said.

Still, the name change only passed by a margin of six votes.

The village corporation maintained the process was rushed. And the city settled on the wrong name to begin with, UIC contended. It said the correct name from long ago is Ukpeaġvik, like in the corporate name, meaning place to hunt snowy owls, not Utqiaġvik, for place to gather roots.

More than three months after the new name took effect on Dec. 1, much has been done to promote it, Cutler said.

A celebration was held that first day. A logo contest resulted in a new one that features the new name and a whale being hunted. The logo is already on buildings and stationary, she said. City workers answer the phone with "Utqiaġvik."

The city is changing references to its name in city code. It is working with the IRS, the postal service and other agencies to change its name with them.

The status quo is now the new name, Cutler said. A court ruling in favor of UIC would upset that, she said.

But UIC wanted the judge to "hit pause, stop further implementation."

In his decision the following day, Roetman noted that while the city did not publish a notice of the meeting in a general circulation newspaper, it did post notices at seven places around town for 10 days before the meeting.

That substantially complies with the requirement in city code for notices of new ordinances to be published, he said.

The code doesn't state that without publication in a newspaper, any ordinance is void, the judge noted.

That indicates publication is not a mandate, he said.

For the last 22 years, the city says, it has fulfilled the requirement to inform the public by posting notices. A ruling against the city would have called decades of city law into question, the judge said.

The next hearing was set for March 22 on how the case should move forward.

Editor's note: The Arctic Sounder is using coverage of this particular hearing written by an Alaska Dispatch News reporter as employees of Alaska Media, which owns the Arctic Sounder, provided documentation for use in court and proceedings referenced initial coverage of the name change by the Arctic Sounder. The Arctic Sounder publisher, Jason Evans, provided an affidavit for the hearing on the circulation of the newspaper.


Copyright 2018 The Arctic Sounder is a publication of Alaska Media, LLC. This article is © 2018 and limited reproduction rights for personal use are granted for this printing only. This article, in any form, may not be further reproduced without written permission of the publisher and owner, including duplication for not-for-profit purposes. Portions of this article may belong to other agencies; those sections are reproduced here with permission and Alaska Media, LLC makes no provisions for further distribution.