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Judge to rule on whether laws broken when Barrow became Utqiaġvik

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: March 10, 2017
  • Published March 9, 2017

A fight over what the northernmost city in the United States should be called is playing out in court, and the immediate focus is on 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 in what is still Barrow Superior Court: 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 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."

The city says 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 agree 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 sides with the village corporation on what the city calls "a purely technical basis," it would be 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. Beyond that, ordinances approved over the last 22 years would be called into question, Cutler said.

The village corporation says the process was rushed. And the city settled on the wrong name to begin with, UIC contends. It says 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 wants the judge to "hit pause, stop further implementation."

Roetman said he would announce his decision at 9 a.m. Friday.

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