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Barrow-to-Utqiaġvik name change can proceed for now, judge rules

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

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 will 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.

People walk on Stevenson Street in Utqiagvik on Dec. 13. Voters approved changing the name of the city of Barrow to Utqiagvik in October. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

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.

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, Roetman noted.

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.

Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp. also says the city picked the wrong name. Its own similar-sounding but different-meaning name is the right one, UIC says, for "place to hunt snowy owls." Utqiaġvik means "place to gather roots."

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

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