Officials in a tiny Native village in Alaska's Interior have shot down a local group's effort to recall the entire city council over alleged mishandling of multiple duties, including failure to file mandatory financial disclosures, provide workers' compensation insurance for city employees, hold regular meetings or follow through with scheduled elections.
The denial of a recall application by Holy Cross officials came just before a city council election taking place Tuesday that should have been held in October, when several seats were expiring. A subsequent special election was set Feb. 29, but it was canceled just before it was to be held, partly because the village failed to submit mandatory federal documents and council incumbents failed to declare their candidacies.
"I've never seen the city just run into the ground like this. It's just in shambles," said Jeff Demientieff, one of the four members of the "Concerned Citizens of Holy Cross," which plans to continue its recall campaign. Demientieff, a former mayor and city council member in the community of 175, and the others in his group are running for council seats against incumbents.
In interviews and memos, state officials confirmed the validity of allegations posed by the group, including an unsuccessful attempt by council members to obtain a $600,000 state grant by submitting apparently fabricated documents -- a topic on which current council members declined to comment. One state official said Holy Cross as a city had no workers' compensation insurance between July 2010 and March 23. The village, which averages four permanent workers, faces significant civil penalties based on a formula of $1,000 fine for each day an individual worker is not insured. Another state official said no financial disclosures have been filed by Holy Cross since 2005, and city council members face fines for again missing the mid-March deadline.
But unless state violations are involved, the state can only advise communities -- not regulate them -- on local issues or problems. The Alaska Constitution gives maximum power to communities over limited state government. Holy Cross is a stark example of what can go wrong in the vacuum of an isolated, remote community -- unless residents decide to step in.
That's just what the citizen coalition says it is trying to do by running for the city council on Tuesday's ballot, which also includes a seat on the seven-member council that's been vacant since November. The special election was scheduled last month just after recall applications were submitted. If the recall targets are re-elected, they would be immune from any recall efforts for the first 120 days of their new terms, under state law.
Meanwhile, Demientieff received a certified letter Friday that the city denied the recall application as insufficient. The undated letter says the council cannot be recalled 180 days before the end of an official's term of office. Anchorage attorney Joe Levesque, hired by the group in January, said the recall application should still be completely processed for two council members not on the ballot. The 180-day rule shouldn't apply to the four council members seeking new terms.
"You could make a strong argument that they don't get the benefit of that grace period if they failed to hold their statutorily mandated regular election," Levesque said.
Members of the council say they inherited a village with lax leadership, stepping in with little experience and knowledge of the rules. They refuse to comment on the alleged fabrication of documents, saying they had nothing to do with them. They also will not talk about the lapse of workers' compensation insurance.
"We're young. We're learning," Council member Victor Ladeira said. "We've admittedly made some mistakes, but we're not holding secret meetings."
Ladeira said he just learned that financial disclosures must be filed annually with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Council meetings might not be held regularly, but when they are, notices are posted, he said. And a local death is one reason a Feb. 29 special election was cancelled, according to Ladeira and Holy Cross Mayor Rebecca Demientieff, who is not related to Jeff Demientieff.
"It would be disrespectful to follow through with having a city election and a funeral," she said.
Incumbents had not declared their candidacy, either. And because the regular election was postponed last October, the city should have notified the U.S. Department of Justice that it was changing the date of its regular election, but failed to do so, according to officials with the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs. The agency has been monitoring the recall effort by the citizen coalition, which unsuccessfully launched a similar effort in 2010.
Besides skipping the October election, the city submitted fabricated meeting minutes in December and January to the state in an application for the $600,000 community development block grant, according to a March division memo by Fred Broerman, a local government specialist with the agency.
"A requirement of CDBG applications is community wide input for selecting which projects grant moneys are spent," Broerman wrote. "However, Holy Cross council did not provide a public meeting prior to submitting their CDBG application and submitted two sets meeting minutes that indicated they did."
Both documents are dated Oct. 14, 2011, and they list different people participating. Among other discrepancies, Rebecca Demientieff is listed under that name in one of the documents, and under her maiden name, Turner, in the other. One of the documents says the meeting began at 7 p.m. and adjourned at 2:10 p.m.
The grant application scored poorly and was declined. Written comments by the grant selection committee note there were many inconsistencies in the meeting minutes.
Coalition member Kathy Chase was mentioned in one of the two minutes as being in attendance as a council member and making formal motions in favor of the state grant program.
At the time, Turner, a former council member, was not on the council, and, on that day, she was in Anchorage, 335 miles southeast of Holy Cross.