My Turn: A special election, but for whom?

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Thursday, March 3, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

A recent Juneau Empire editorial highlighted the apparent rift among Assembly members over the mayoral campaigns of Karen Crane and Ken Koelsch. In that editorial, the Empire stated how “… some elected officials were focusing on petty arguments.” What is neither mentioned nor petty is the action that triggered this rift when some Assembly members steamrolled the body into approving an unnecessary and expensive special election.

The Assembly and the community at large were shocked and dismayed at the untimely and tragic death of our newly elected mayor, Greg Fisk, on Nov. 30. As the editorial pointed out, Mayor Fisk promised to be a unifier and was greatly respected throughout the community for his ability to bring people together and articulate his vision.

One of the first steps he took after taking office was to lead the Assembly in unanimously electing Mary Becker as Deputy Mayor for the fourth consecutive time. This was not just a perfunctory gesture but an indication of Mayor Fisk’s belief in Becker’s abilities and experience to lead the Assembly in his absence. And so, when the unthinkable happened, Becker stepped up to carry out her responsibilities as Mayor of Juneau.

Mayor Becker made clear that she was willing and able to lead the Assembly until the next regular municipal election in October when a new mayor could be elected. A majority of the Assembly members initially indicated a special election was not necessary. Yet, at the very next regular assembly meeting on Dec, 21, Karen Crane, along with four other members of the Assembly voted to hold a special election on March 15. This ignored precedent established in two previous mayoral replacements.

Doesn’t the public deserve an explanation of why there was no public discussion among Assembly members prior to this meeting, no meaningful notice of the action they were about to take and no public testimony taken?

What’s made many people uncomfortable with this whole process is the appearance that Karen Crane had more than just the community in mind when she voted. According to publically available APOC reports, on Dec. 29 (eight days later), Crane received her first mayoral campaign donation and filed her Letter of Intent to run for Mayor the next day.

It’s obvious Karen Crane was contemplating running when she voted to have our community hold and pay for a special election. Whether intended or not, shortening the time frame to the absolute minimum had the effect of marginalizing any potential competition and giving her a jump-start on her campaign. Furthermore, this off-cycle election has cut short the democratic electoral process and may depress turnout – not giving our community a full opportunity to fully consider and vote on other candidates who may have been interested in running for mayor.

Some argue the question of a new mayor needed to be resolved without delay. This argument might be worth considering if Juneau had a strong mayor form of government where the mayor actually makes executive decisions affecting the daily running of the city. But our mayor doesn’t have that power — it’s a part-time job (at least nominally) that requires representing the city at various meetings or functions and chairing the Assembly meetings. The mayor’s vote doesn’t carry more weight than any other Assembly member. Nothing in the mayor’s job description requires the kind of haste used to justify the expense of a special election.

In fact, the only thing this special election may accomplish for Juneau voters is a costly game of musical chairs that will disrupt the continuity and smooth running of the Assembly until the next election — something we can ill afford when more important issues need attention.

This is particularly galling to many Juneauites because the five Assembly members (Karen Crane, Jesse Kiehl, Kate Troll, Loren Jones, and Maria Gladziszewski) who voted for this needless and contrived special election also voted to gut the Senior Sales Tax Exemption because the city was in a budget crunch. Doesn’t fiscal responsibility apply equally to all Assembly decisions — not just the ones with which you conveniently agree?

Yes, there is a rift on the Assembly. But the “squabble” cited in the editorial is actually a symptom of the breakdown in trust among members resulting from this unwarranted action. When the Assembly acts, we expect thoughtful decision-making and complete transparency — especially in something as important as our election process.

Casting Mayor Becker aside despite her experience and willingness to serve was disrespectful to her and her elected position. Wasting public money to serve political purposes was inexcusable. In taking an action that benefited their personal choice for mayor, some Assembly members forgot their first obligation was to all the citizens they represent.

Mayor Becker deserves better and so do the people of Juneau.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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