When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (3-9-21), it took another step toward selling the former Sitka Community Hospital building. Instead of holding a public vote on the potential sale, the assembly will host two hearings, allowing Sitkans to weigh in later this month.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) currently leases the former Sitka Community Hospital building to house its long-term care unit. Last fall, SEARHC expressed interest in purchasing the city-owned property.
The assembly has already voted to begin the sale process, with the plan to put the property out to competitive bid later this spring. But first the group needed to decide if and how the public should weigh in on the sale.
City Administrator John Leach described a few options. The assembly could put the sale out to an advisory vote on the municipal election ballot or in a special election. It could also skip the advisory vote entirely. Either way, a vote would be non-binding.
Instead of putting the sale up for a vote, Leach said the assembly could hold two hearings to get feedback from the public.
Assembly member Rebecca Himschoot said she preferred to hold public hearings.
“I think it’s really important to have public input, and that allows for that,” she said. “I don’t ever want to say that a vote is something that bogs us down, but it does allow us to get the input that we need to make a good decision without necessarily having to hold the formality of a vote.”
“I’m just a little bit hesitant to not have a public vote on a major sale like this,” said assembly member Thor Christianson. “With the caveat that I wouldn’t support going to hearings or going to a public vote if the proposal is not sufficient. If the proposal is not in my mind at least sufficient for the property, then we stop the process.”
Most assembly members expressed support for holding public hearings. But Valorie Nelson said some Sitkans were still angry about the sale of Sitka Community Hospital’s business to SEARHC in 2019, and she wanted the public to weigh in on the building sale with a vote.
“By my count, it looks like the public is going to be short-changed again,” she said. “Because you’re going to go to public hearings in lieu of an advisory vote, when everybody is very busy with their herring battles or herring fisheries, tax preparation. I just think it’s too short of a timespan and not enough notification to get true public input.”
Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said he felt like hearings would give the public a chance to give more feedback.
“To me a vote is going to tell us ‘Do you want to sell the building, yes or no?’ and that’s the only question that we’re going to get answered,” he said. “If we do public hearings, people will have two opportunities plus some through emails and contacts, to tell us their thoughts on this as opposed to yes or no.”
Other options were suggested, like informal surveys, or a combination of hearings and a vote. But ultimately, the assembly chose the path recommended by staff, opting to skip the vote and hold two public hearings on the hospital property sale instead. It approved the plan on a 5-2 vote with members Nelson and Christianson opposed.
The first hearing is Tuesday, March 16.