May 17, 2012 | Volume 42, No.20

Commentary

Haines Borough Assembly members should think long, hard and outside-the-box about their approach to hiring a new municipal manager.

Since government consolidation in 2002, Haines has averaged one manager per year. That’s about twice the attrition rate for managers statewide. Our community tends to be tough on its leaders, but it’s inaccurate to say no one could last at this job.

Bob Ward, who had a long career in Skagway and served here on an interim basis, was liked and respected by borough staff and residents. Likewise, Tom Healy, who served as administrator under the former City of Haines, was highly regarded and left on good terms for a career in the same job in Palmer.

In addition, recent creation of borough staff positions, including facilities director and assistant manager, and the hiring of consultants, have considerably lightened the manager’s workload.

But we are picky, and the goods are sometimes odd. Many of our previous managers have had no formal education in public administration. They’ve been folks with degrees in fields like journalism, English, geology or business who are “self-taught,” meaning through trial and error in towns like ours.

We hire them because we’re too frugal to attract better qualified candidates, or because our candidate search is not extensive, or perhaps because, as can-do Alaskans, we can be skeptical of “book learning.” “Managing a small town, how hard can it be?” we seem to think. Plenty hard, the turnover suggests.

Now we’re starting anew with another manager hire. If we use the same process and parameters for this hire as we’ve used in the past, we’re unlikely to arrive at a much different result.

Perhaps instead, borough assembly members should consider alternatives, including any versions or combination of these:

· Restrict the search exclusively to candidates who hold college degrees in public administration. These people at least have shown interest enough in their profession to invest their own money into learning about it.

· Split the job into two positions, each requiring a different skill set.

· For the first year, offer the job on a month-to-month basis, with a “no-fault divorce” option for either party wanting out. Think of it as “speed-dating” for a manager.

· Consider hiring a professional “head-hunter” to locate a successful manager working elsewhere and lure that person here with financial incentives.

· Consider a significant salary increase, or perhaps a staggered salary that starts low and becomes generous only in its fourth or fifth year, rewarding longevity.

· Seriously consider any ideas that ring with potential and haven’t been previously tried.

Also, assembly members might want to slow the hiring process to ensure a good result. A logical, first step would be identifying the qualities we need in a manager, traits like leadership, organization, courage, and forthrightness.

We invest a lot of hope in the manager’s position. We should be willing to invest a commensurate amount of money, effort and creativity in how we go about filling it.

To land a manager we can keep around five or 10 years, the extra effort would be well spent.

-- Tom Morphet