She’s served under six borough mayors, offers on-the-spot legal advice during borough assembly meetings and is the borough’s resident expert on municipal code.
Now, after more than 25 years of providing legal services, Colette Thompson is retiring from the borough.
She took time to reflect on her career and look to the future during a Thursday interview with the Clarion at her office in the George A. Navarre Borough Building in Soldotna.
Thompson said she’s known that she wanted to practice law since she was in junior high, citing the influence of TV shows, a desire to help people and a knack for debating.
“I wanted to be an attorney, but that wasn’t the only course of action,” Thompson said. “Once I graduated from college, I decided, yeah, I definitely still wanted to go that direction.”
She attended the University of Portland, where she received a bachelor’s degree in business administration, before attending the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she earned her Juris Doctor degree.
It was while at the University of Portland, Thompson said, that she met her husband, Tucker Thompson, who was born and raised on the Kenai Peninsula.
“The first time I came up here was to be a boat puller on a drift gillnetter for him,” Thompson said.
They both wanted to be attorneys, so the two eventually took the Alaska bar and began practicing law in Alaska.
Thompson joined the Kenai Peninsula Borough in 1994, when she was hired to fill the position of Deputy Borough Attorney. She started practicing law on the peninsula at a private practice, where she said she handled everything from wills to business contracts to family law, which she called “standard small town practice.”
“But I was interested in the borough and municipal law, especially where people seem so engaged and interested in it,” Thompson said. “I wanted to get to know the people in the community and it’s definitely introduced me to a lot of very interesting people.”
After joining the borough in 1994, Thompson was appointed acting Borough Attorney in 1996 and appointed Borough Attorney later that year by the mayor with approval by the borough assembly.
One of the assignments Thompson remembers taking on early in her career at the borough, for example, saw her work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to resolve citations the agency issued following its inspection of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilities.
“It was interesting to learn how the school district operates and its governing laws,” Thompson said. “But here, your client is much more public than in private practice.”
She noted that over the course of her work as the borough’s attorney, one of the issues that borough residents seem particularly passionate about is the regulation of land use. She’s dealt with everything from 50-foot setback rules along the Kenai River, to concerns about the introduction of halfway houses to the borough, to property tax exemptions.
“That’s one thing you learn working here — property rights are extremely important to people,” Thompson said.
Another issue that Thompson said stands out to her is one that dealt with the delivery of religious invocations at borough assembly meetings.
In 2018, the borough lost a lawsuit against plaintiffs who were not allowed to give invocations at assembly meetings because they did not belong to religious associations with an established presence on the Kenai Peninsula. Outside attorneys, through an organization that specialized in that area of law, represented the borough in that case. The plaintiffs, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, ultimately won the case after Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Peterson ruled that the assembly’s invocation policy violated the establishment clause of the Alaska Constitution.
“Before the lawsuit was filed members of the public testified in opposition to the practice of having an invocation before assembly meetings,” Thompson said. “The public comments on all sides of the issue continued and the efforts by the assembly to come up with a solution that would be acceptable to the community was very difficult for them and [for] the public. There were strong, heartfelt feelings from a broad spectrum of different beliefs.”
“The facts were not in dispute and the question was purely a legal question,” Thompson said. “The court’s role was to decide based on the facts, what the law would say.”
The borough assembly ultimately decided not to appeal the decision and amended the invocation policy to remove the requirement that a person belong to a religious association.
Thompson’s more than 25 years of service to the borough were honored earlier this month with a commending resolution, introduced by Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, who presented the legislation to Thompson during the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s July 6 meeting. It, among other things, praised Thompson’s “exemplary dedication to public service” and “steadfast stewardship” in her capacity as borough attorney.
“The Kenai Peninsula Borough wishes to recognize the contributions of Colette Thompson in guiding the borough through legal issues or disputes with unequaled diligence, thoughtful advice, and great loyalty to the public’s trust,” the resolution says.
Also in attendance during the assembly’s July 7 meeting were Matanuska-Susitna Borough Attorney Nick Spiropolous and Fairbanks North Star Borough Attorney Jill Dolan, some of the many who shared fond memories of their relationship with Thompson.
“Colette has always been a positive resource, very knowledgeable, great to get along with, friendly — I wish her all the best in her retirement,” said Spiropolous, who said he got to know Thompson through the Alaska Municipal Attorneys Association.
“I’ve personally been able to witness her in her role as a litigator and I just think the Kenai Peninsula Borough was so fortunate to have her,” Dolan said. “She really was just so calm and reasoned in everything she did and I saw her be assertive without ever being argumentative. I think she’s contributed not only to the Kenai Peninsula Borough but also to other municipalities including mine with her work as a municipal lawyer.”
One of the memories that stands out to Thompson the most? The 2006 Arctic Winter Games.
“It was a big event,” she said.
She added that it took about four years for the borough to prepare for hosting the event, which brought together participants from Greenland, the Northwest Territories, Russia, Northern Alberta, Nunavut and Sami, among others, for a week of sporting festivities that included dog mushing, snowshoeing, table tennis and alpine skiing.
“It just lasted a week, but the place was just packed with people from all corners of the planet — the Northern planet, specifically,” Thompson said. “… I have fond memories of that.”
Thompson describes herself as a casual sports fan, but said that she particularly enjoyed getting to experience sporting activities from different cultures, such as curling and the high kick. The Arctic Winter Games’ cauldron, which depicts people holding hands around where the flame was lit throughout the games, is displayed on the grounds of the George A. Navarre Kenai Peninsula Borough Building in Soldotna, visible from Thompson’s corner office.
Now that she’s retiring, Thompson said she hopes to have more time to read and work on models. She used to be into science fiction, particularly the work of Robert Heinlein, who she once met, but lately she’s inclined to learn more about history. That, of course, is when she isn’t reading legal opinions.
“Actually, I do enjoy reading good legal opinions,” Thompson said. “It’s fun, you know, in a bizarre way, following the logic.”
Thompson also enjoys building models, such as model rockets — she helped to start and worked a few years at a private rocket startup company after law school that ultimately launched a hybrid rocket from the ocean in 1984, but closed shortly thereafter. Her current plan is to visit her family and finish building a model acrylic car engine that, when finished, should illustrate how the cylinders, spark plugs and crankshaft, among others, work together to make the engine operate.
Though she said she will miss the work she’s doing at the borough, Thompson said she’s ready for a change.
“I need a break,” Thompson said. “We talk about bubbles now and I’d like to get out of this bubble for a while and gain a different perspective.”
To whomever fills her position as Borough Attorney after her retirement, Thompson has three pieces of advice: “Read the code, listen and be prepared.”
“I try to be prepared but there’s always a question that comes up where you have to think on your feet,” Thompson said.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.