City will not donate funds to St. Michael’s Cathedral for renovation project

St. Michael’s Cathedral (Robert Woolsey – KCAW)

Though it was short, with no new business and only four items of unfinished business on the agenda, Tuesday’s  Sitka Assembly meeting was still eventful, with assembly members continuing to debate if they should allocate funds for renovations to St. Michael’s Cathedral.

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After deliberation that spanned several meetings, St. Michael’s Cathedral will not receive $5,000 dollars from the city for exterior work. At a short meeting on Tuesday, the Sitka Assembly voted 4-3 against donating the money for renovations to the historic building. The ordinance, originally presented to the assembly on November 7, continued to stir up debate over the separation of church and state. Assembly member Bob Potrzuski, who co-sponsored the ordinance with assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz, voiced his support.

“It certainly does not promote any religious activity,” Potrzuski said. “There’s not any reason except to continue to have an iconic building that draws visitors by the  thousands to our downtown to our community as a whole.”

St. Michael’s is a replica of the Orthodox cathedral built by the Russians in the 19th Century. It has major structural problems like a leaking roof and a basement prone to flooding. The money would have come from the visitor’s enhancement fund and would only be used to help fund renovations to the exterior of the building. Assembly member Kevin Knox said he felt like it was a worthy cause.

“You can’t pick up a piece of literature that supports our visitor industry and not see that picture, the face of that church,” Knox said.

Mayor Matthew Hunter also voiced his support, and said that the visitor enhancement fund exists to fund such projects and the religious connection is immaterial.

“We need this structure so that people can continue to come to Sitka and live the history that brings so many people here,” Hunter said.

Assembly member Aaron Bean, who spoke against the measure when it was introduced on November 7, said even if the money was specifically allocated for exterior renovations, it still indirectly helps the church further its mission.

“It’s pretty clear that by doing this you will be advancing the church’s goal,” Bean said. “Any money that they wouldn’t have to otherwise pay a contractor to do the work that they’ve been neglecting for years is going to end up furthering their agenda.”

City Attorney Brian Hanson said while Bean’s argument made sense, it was a common one made in past cases that set legal precedent for separation of church and state, and doesn’t hold up in a court of law.

Though Hunter voiced his support, he said he was concerned the city could be sued if they moved ahead.

“I did have an interaction with a gentleman on the street who was very passionate about the issue and said ‘I will sue you if you support this,” Hunter said.

Hanson said that though he believes the donation wouldn’t violate the first amendment and the city would be on solid legal ground, they may still be at risk of a lawsuit, which could be costly.

“This is only a $5,000 donation. I would suggest if a lawsuit is filed, it’s no longer economically viable to do this, no matter if you win or not,”  Hanson said.

Ultimately, the measure failed 4-3, with Ben Miyasato, Bob Potrzuski and Richard Wein voting in favor, and Aaron Bean, Steven Eisenbeisz, Kevin Knox and Mayor Matt Hunter voting against.

In other business, the assembly voted on second reading,  to update the electronic health records system for Sitka Community Hospital. They also approved, on second reading, several requests from Gary Paxton Industrial Park.

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