Prop 2 asks voters to weigh in on strong mayor or borough manager

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sue McClure, the East Peninsula representative on the borough assembly, has always known Seward with a city manager. So why would she want to change it?

She feels similarly about the Kenai Peninsula Borough: It doesn't have a manager, so why bring one in now?

"I'm not technically opposed at all to this form of government, it's just, what we have currently in the borough is fine," McClure said.

Besides, a borough manager will cost more money, won't it?

"I do feel that the manager costs more than the mayor costs right now," McClure said.

"I'm not basing it on any reality, it's just my own thoughts."

When it comes to ballot measure No. 2, which would support a borough manager/weakened mayor form of government for the borough, McClure's sentiment seems to be the driving force.

Generally, people are not basing their opinions on a reality, but instead are relying on their gut.

Part of that instinct-driven mentality comes from the fact that it's still unclear what a manager handling the borough's day-to-day business would actually entail.

How much would a manager make? What exactly would the mayor's watered-down duties include? How much of a pay cut would the weakened mayor incur?

Proposition 2 does not address these questions. It only asks voters if they support the concept of a weak mayor and borough manager.

If the public decides on Oct. 5 that it supports a borough manager, then the assembly, which will be one-third new faces, will have 60 days to hammer out the details.

The majority of local governments in Alaska involve a manager, according to the Alaska Municipal League, which is a voluntary, nonprofit, nonpartisan, statewide organization of 140 cities, boroughs, and unified municipalities, representing more than 97 percent of the state's residents.

Kathie Wasserman, the league's executive director, said managers often help local governments.

"When you elect a mayor, he is elected for a number of reasons, but usually not for his administrative skills," Wasserman said. "Voting, a lot of times, is a popularity contest."

Wasserman said a mayor's job "requires a huge pile of stuff that a person needs to know," and a professional manager can usually maintain a municipality's finances, negotiations and personnel more effectively than a mayor can.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey, who opposes proposition 2, believes voters think about management and business experience when electing a mayor.

The assembly members behind proposition 2 say they want a manager because they believe the borough is a business that must be run as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

Charlie Pierce, of Sterling, said a borough manager would actually allow the mayor flexibility.

"It's admitting to yourself that you have a large enough borough and you have a large enough job that would require two individuals to handle the day-to-day business of the borough," Pierce said. "The borough is large enough, it has a large enough budget, you need to share some of these duties now."

Gary Knopp, of Kalifornsky, reminded that proposition 2 would not eliminate the mayor.

"You are still choosing a mayor, it would just be redefining the job duties," Knopp, who, with Pierce, co-sponsored the idea for proposition 2, said.

Pierce and Knopp said their ideal model would allow the mayor to introduce legislation and spend more time championing the people's issues. The mayor could also retain veto powers and possibly even become a voting member on the assembly, depending on what action was taken following a vote in support of the ballot measure.

The mayor would no longer make budgetary decisions or deal with personnel issues, for which Carey has faced criticism.

Carey acknowledges the benefit of having more time to meet with constituents, but he doesn't think that's enough of a reason to change the current system.

"I think people want to know the mayor and elect a mayor who runs things," Carey said.

Carey supports the right of the people to choose, however.

"I believe that it is valid to ask the people, to educate the people and to let them decide. I support the right of the people to vote on this, and I think it's the right time."

In terms of money, it's unclear whether a manger is a cheaper option.

The mayor and his chief of staff each make around $80,000 per year. The mayor's special assistant and administrative assistant each earn about $45,000 annually.

Knopp has suggested that a borough manager make between $150,000 and $175,000 per year. But Knopp said hiring a manager would actually save the borough money because some positions within the administration would be eliminated. In addition, the mayor would likely take a pay cut.

Many also argue that a professional manager making sound business decisions on the borough's behalf would save money in the long run.

"A professional manager might be less expensive than having an amateur mayor," Bill Smith, Homer's representative said.

Smith calls proposition 2 a "commotion issue" and said he would have liked more details before putting the manager question to the people.

Would the manager require an assistant? Would the mayor, in a reduced capacity, still require the same number of assistants?

These are questions that will not be determined until the voters decide they want to hire a manger.

Many in the public who are against changing the current borough administration model worry they will lose an element of control over the borough if they approve a manager.

Any borough manager would be hired and fired by the assembly, not voted in by the public, as is current practice with the mayor.

South Peninsula representative Mako Haggerty takes issue with the public being one step removed.

"The voters would be relinquishing one of their powers," Haggerty said. "As an involved citizen I wouldn't want to give up that control over who manages the borough."

Wasserman, with the municipal league, said managers are just as accountable as elected officials.

"Their objective is to follow the direction of the assembly and the mayor, and, just like a mayor, if a manager gets a job he wants to keep it," Wasserman said. "It's very difficult on a city manager because they work hard, they have the assembly to please, they have the mayor to please, and they have the public to please."

There's no denying this most recent attempt to move forward with the borough manager idea -- it was also discussed and voted down last year -- comes because some assembly members are not satisfied with Carey's performance.

In June, Pierce lambasted Carey saying, "You need a leader to look at what we can do versus what we want to do and then strike a balance. I don't think the mayor is capable of achieving that balance.

"We need some intelligence over there, and I think we are challenged for that right now," Pierce added in June.

Pierce has since backed off, saying proposition 2 "has absolutely nothing to do with a former mayor or the present mayor," but he maintains similar language when discussing the need for a manager.

"In terms of a mayor, if you have an individual that is challenged on many (business) aspects, they could potentially make some pretty serious mistakes," Pierce said. "And those mistakes could be long lasting and, ultimately, the taxpayer pays for those mistakes."

The municipal league said personalities and past experiences almost always come into play in governance discussions.

"It's always based on experience. Some people are against marriage, too," Wasserman said. "If they've been married five times they probably have some good, valid reasons for being against it."

The personal battle associated with proposition 2 has not gone unnoticed.

"It appears to me that it was developed as an attack on the current administration and simply that," McClure said.

But the voters have to look beyond what initially caused the proposal and decide on it for what it is, according to the municipal league.

"I think they should think it over and try to separate it from the personal issue," Wasserman said. "How do they want to see their municipality run?"

Andrew Waite can be reached at

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