In a previous column I described several Assembly meetings where actions taken were less than transparent. That column discussed (1) an ordinance appropriating $50,000 to be used to advocate for the new City Hall; (2) the non-disclosure of emails that constitute public testimony; and (3) the surprise selection of former Assembly member Loren Jones to fill the position of resigning member Carole Triem.
With one exception, there’s been no reaction from the Assembly to public concerns. This seems odd since these items are relatively easy to resolve. Publishing communications from the public regarding a pending Assembly matter is simple enough, as would be drafting an Assembly policy requiring it. As for the late-night Assembly vacancy announcement, it seems the mayor could have publicly revealed her reasons for filling the position for such a brief period before the election.
Instead, the Assembly has doubled down on its lack of transparency as evidenced by the recent city manager “search and selection.” We are told that the process was a “rigorous” nationwide search that selected the most qualified candidate. But how can the public be assured of that since the entire process was confidential and conducted in executive session?
But first, back to the $50,000 appropriation ordinance referenced earlier. Assembly member Michelle Hale publicly responded in an Empire My Turn defending the Assembly’s decision to authorize spending public money advocating for a $27 million bond issue to partially pay for the new City Hall.
However, the main justification she cited was a nine-year-old Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) case that has limited similarity and wouldn’t have prevented municipal officials from providing neutral election information to voters. The case involved a Fairbanks city council member who was fined $37.50 for using his official email account to request information benefiting his mayoral election campaign.
Regardless, none of the city manager’s statements or Assembly discussions mentioned this APOC case until now. It’s either another example of lack of transparency or simply looking for an excuse after the fact. Neither further promotes trust in local government.
The recruitment and selection process for the new city manager is another case in point.
The Assembly City Manager Recruitment Committee met six times between May 15 and July 24. Five of the six meetings that were held lasted barely an hour and the public portion of the meetings rarely exceeded ten minutes. The sixth meeting involved interviews, was quite lengthy, and extended in executive session over two days.
According to what little information was provided, no independent search firm was used during the process. The initial screening of applications was handled internally by the city human resources department. The committee then reviewed candidate applications, interviewed candidates remotely, and then landed on a few finalists who made a site visit and interviewed with the full Assembly.
A proper search is essential in fulfilling the Assembly’s fiduciary duties to its employees and the public. An insider hire after a rigorous search allows the new manager to say, “I earned this.” However, this process was so cloaked in mystery, no one outside of the Assembly and a few city officials knew who was being interviewed. The first time the public learned the identity of the internal candidate was when the Assembly appointed her city manager. The public was never invited to meet any of the other finalists and still doesn’t know who they were.
In contrast, recent top management searches by the Juneau School District and Bartlett Regional Hospital employed national search firms, and introduced finalists in news releases and public forums.
There can be reasons to keep applicant identities confidential, up to a point. But for a high-profile leadership position the public deserves to know more. If there are reasons why this hasn’t been done, why haven’t they been stated?
This should not reflect Katie Koester, Juneau’s new city manager. She may well have been the most qualified candidate, but the public will never be able to judge that for themselves. The Assembly did her a disservice by denying her the opportunity to showcase her qualifications vis-à-vis the other candidates.
Transparency in government is crucial to gaining public trust.
Why doesn’t our Assembly get that?
• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.