Rorie Watt, city manager for the City & Borough of Juneau, speakers to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at its luncheon at the Hangar Ballroom on Thursday.

New city manager stresses open government

Juneau’s new city manager is excited about climate change, and he plans to do everything he can to speed it along. He wasn’t talking about the kind that’s melting the Mendenhall Glacier.

“The climate that I want to change is the way you think about your city government,” Rorie Watt told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at its weekly luncheon Thursday afternoon.

Watt stepped into his new role in mid-April after the Juneau Assembly chose him to replace outgoing manager Kim Kiefer, who retired last week. Watt has only been running the show for a short time, but was thinking of ways to improve the city long before he was sitting in the manager’s chair.

[CBJ city manager search finally over.]

About eight months ago, several city officials met to discuss how to improve Juneau’s local government, Watt told the chamber. He showed up to the work session with a big idea.

“I said, ‘Let’s change the whole way we approach city government,’” he said.

Not surprisingly, his peers were initially skeptical of his plan. But it’s not all that complicated, he assured the chamber lunch crowd. It comprises two main components: a lot of communication and a little bit of humor.

“I think what we need to do is communicate better — openly and honestly about our successes and our shortcomings,” Watt said. “One thing the city does poorly is communicating what it does well.”

The city doesn’t have a public relations department — or even a dedicated spokesperson. “You’re looking at your PR department,” Watt said with a laugh as he pointed with both thumbs at his chest.

But that’s not what he’s after. He said he’d like city employees to have the confidence to speak openly with people about local government processes, but he’d also like people to give the city the benefit of the doubt.

He explained that the city’s government is made up of 40 Assembly-appointed boards and commissions, each of which contains about 10 members. This means that about 400 Juneau residents are regularly “applying democracy.”

Though Watt sees this as something to be proud of, city government processes are still too obscure and convoluted for most people to follow. By increasing transparency, Watt hopes to clear the air of misconceptions about the local government, which he asked the chamber crowd to view as a small family business. Sometimes it is forced to make difficult decisions, and sometimes it makes mistakes, but it means well and gets a lot of things right, he said.

“If you treat your local government the way the national media treats the federal government, you’re creating the nightmare that you don’t want,” Watt said. “But if you treat your local government like a small family business, you’re going to create the government that you want.”

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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