Workers with City and Borough of Juneau Parks and Recreation clear the basin at Cope Park of excess sediment and other material washed down the waterway on Sept. 16, 2020. This work is an example of one of the many varied jobs done by public servants and recognized during Public Service Recognition Week, which ends May 8. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

CBJ employees grow, pivot during an unprecedented year

City manager looks back during Public Service Recognition Week

Public Service Recognition Week will wrapped up Saturday. But, the work of public servants goes on, and changes each day to meet the community’s needs, said Rorie Watt, city manager for the City and Borough of Juneau.

“It’s been a long year, and a lot of people are working very hard,” Watt said in a phone interview this week. “I really appreciate the incredible spectrum of things that city employees do. It’s a fascinating organizational chart.” He added that city workers do jobs as varied as managing utilities, maintaining roads, protecting citizens and the waterfront and operating recreational facilities.

Watt said that over the last year, public servants have learned to flex new muscles and tackle new and different tasks while continuing to keep things running smoothly in the face of unprecedented health and economic emergencies.

“We’ve been living in two worlds. Our normal world is reliable, predictable municipal service. That’s everything from EMTs to swimming pools to parking enforcement. Many of these things were greatly disrupted due to COVID,” he said.

Watt said that the city’s COVID-19 response challenged employees to do things they never anticipated.

“Everything from crafting and recommending public policy to holding vaccination clinics. It was all very ad hoc. People learned to work with each other in different ways,” he said.

Watt said that many staff members took on dual roles as department heads were drafted into different types of work.

“We have lots of hard-working people with good instincts,” he said.

Watt said that department heads worked together to redeploy staff members during the early stages of the pandemic.

“We acknowledged we were closing down the pool. What else can we do with the staff? Lifeguards cleaned busses and did airport testing,” he said.

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Silver linings

Watt said the pivots and new tasks changed the city’s workforce.

“I’ve seen a lot of people grow. I’ve seen many, many employees grow and departments shift,” he said.

Also, Watt said the last year had shown him that Juneau is a reliant and cohesive community.

“Juneau demonstrated the ability to hang together and really be on the same page during trying times,” he said, crediting the city’s communication shop for the clear messages that helped keep everyone on the same page.

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Returning to normal

Watt suspects that the “rhythm of public service” will start to return to its regular cadence over the coming months. He said that people appreciate a “slower, more methodical local government.”

He cited Mayor Beth Weldon’s recent announcement that City Assembly meetings will become partially in-person affairs beginning May 24. City Assembly members have conducted all meetings via Zoom since last spring.

He said that the meeting will accommodate remote participation. The staff is working to ensure that the meeting complies with the city’s COVID mitigation plans but, he said the in-person meetings represent a step toward normalcy.

•Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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