A Wrangell man’s unlikely DIY case against city hall is headed for trial

Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by James Brooks)

In Wrangell, a former candidate for mayor is fighting city hall — single-handedly and without an attorney. A handwritten lawsuit alleges cronyism in the City and Borough of Wrangell. After nearly eight months, the bizarre case is headed for trial.

Kipha, or “Kip” Valvoda says he’s been trying to get a city job for years. He’s served on some boards including Wrangell’s planning and zoning commission. He ran for mayor a few times, as recently as 2016. 

But so far he’s been unable to land a paying gig at city hall. He claims he’s qualified, having worked all kinds of construction and maintenance jobs across the country… but that hasn’t impressed the city.

“It’s just people get so involved in the same old same old that they can’t think outside the box and they can’t hire me,” Valvoda says.

The city denies any wrong doing. And there are eight defendants named in his lawsuit including Wrangell’s current mayor, city manager and several members of the Assembly — past and present.

Kipha Valvoda is suing the City of Wrangell for employment discrimination. A judge set the trial for August of 2020. (Photo via KSTK)

Valvoda is representing himself. And he’s taking a D-I-Y approach: some of his court filings are handwritten in scrawling script on court templates.

But without any legal training he’s admitted to some mistakes already. Like the time he served documents to the city’s attorney with a $100 C-O-D. The city’s lawyer couldn’t collect them without forking over cash on delivery.

Judge Kevin Miller wrote that while the court grants leniency for those who aren’t trained in the law, trying to collect money from the other side mid-lawsuit ain’t allowed. 

Valvoda says he’s paid the initial $200 fine over that one.

“That’s a lesson learned, I’m not an attorney,” he says.

He’ll be on the hook for much more if he loses the case. But that’s not to be decided until next summer. 

The heart of the legal complaint stems from last year’s hiring of Wrangell’s public works director. Valvoda was submitted his resume. But so did Rolland Howell, who at the time sat on the Wrangell Assembly.

That raised eyebrows because as an elected official, Howell oversaw the same city staff who were interviewing him for the job. 

Of course, Wrangell has rules barring elected officials from taking city jobs within six months of holding public office. 

But there’s a loophole: the Assembly got around the apparent conflict by granting a special waiver on a 4-1 vote. Howell gave up his Assembly seat, took the job and has run the city’s public works department since.

To Valvoda, this smacks of small-town corruption.

“There’s a swamp that reaches from Wrangell through every other little city to D.C.,” he says.

He’s seeking $700,000 in damages and wants the court to bar the defendants — including sitting elected officials and city staff and their immediate relatives — from city positions. 

The city says it’s spent $17,000 to date defending itself from Valvoda’s lawsuit. 

Judge Miller is allowing the case to proceed. The city says it will request the judge dismiss the case. City Manager Lisa Von Bargen says she stands by the borough’s hiring practices. 

A trial date has been scheduled for August 24.