For most of us who have never held an elected position, it’s difficult to appreciate the extraordinary demands made on public servants and their families. Amazingly, such people are willing to sacrifice their family life — even their careers — usually with relatively little financial compensation.
Luckily for Juneau, Ken Koelsch was willing to do just that when he announced for mayor in January 2016. It was no ordinary election — in fact, an off-cycle special election, because of the untimely death of the recently elected mayor after only two months in office.
As it turns out, he was the right person, at the right time. Some might say, the perfect person.
After a career in education and law enforcement and having been previously elected twice to the CBJ Assembly (and serving as deputy mayor), Ken Koelsch was well-qualified to step up to the job.
His message of stronger public safety, fiscal prudence, responsible economic development, and “uniting generations to move Juneau forward” were the hallmarks of his campaign.
His election results speak for themselves. With one of the highest local election turnouts in recent history, Koelsch swept nine of 13 Juneau precincts and garnered almost 60 percent of the votes.
He immediately began working with the Assembly and the community.
As a highly visible and effective advocate for Juneau, Koelsch regularly walked the halls of the Capitol speaking with legislators and staff members about how Juneau could better serve them as Alaska’s capital city.
He kept regular office hours, making himself accessible to the general public. Along with his wife, Marian, he attended countless community events. The mayor welcomed scores of dignitaries and visitors to Juneau and, with his engaging and comfortable personal style, always found a way to make them feel special.
Koelsch hasn’t been afraid of controversy and believes that tough decisions are part of being a leader. He has been especially forceful in his advocacy for making our streets safer, growing the economy and exercising fiscal restraint.
Soon after taking office, to address concerns of local downtown property owners, he led the Assembly to pass an “anti-trespassing” ordinance — making the downtown area safer and cleaner for shop owners, locals and visitors.
At the same time, he supported the construction of a Housing First facility that provided permanent housing for the chronically homeless. He supported additional camping areas and a warming shelter as well.
The mayor continued to champion the Lynn Canal Highway project, believing it is critical to the survival of the ferry system. It would also spur economic development, lower transportation costs and demonstrate to the rest of the state Juneau desired improved access to the capital city.
Recognizing the contribution the mining industry makes to Juneau’s economy, Koelsch supported changes to the borough mining ordinance to help attract additional mining projects to Juneau.
With the realization that Juneau’s population and employment were shrinking and would not see appreciable positive change until new economic development became a reality, he advocated caution when considering large-scale, expensive public projects.
Hence, his skepticism of the $32 million New JACC arts and cultural center. Koelsch favored discussion of a more affordable, modest facility — one that would provide a larger venue for events but not saddle the city with additional subsidies or raise property taxes — further negatively impacting Juneau’s already high housing costs. Likewise, he objected to spending up to $2.8 million per year on a new community pre-K program when a smaller investment to help expand daycare facilities made more sense.
The choice Koelsch made not to run for re-election wasn’t easy. Yet, his promise to “unite generations” echoed loud and clear in his announcement when he said, “My commitment to this community will never cease — and yet it’s time to turn the reins of leadership over to the next generation.”
Juneau will have a difficult choice to make in selecting a new mayor. Two of the three announced candidates are from the next generation. But all three candidates have different ideas on how to lead our community and the direction it should take.
As a former teacher, Koelsch understood the value of a lesson plan and creating a path for others to follow.
• 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 graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations. He contributes a regular column to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.