June 14, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 24

Earnest back on job; hiring process halted

The Haines Borough Assembly voted 4-1 Tuesday to retain manager Mark Earnest, reactivating a contract that gives him the borough’s top job for another 13 months.

Member Norm Smith voted in opposition. Assemblywoman Debra Schnabel, a candidate for the vacant manager’s position, had asked to be excused from the matter that was scheduled on the assembly meeting agenda as “interim borough manager appointment.”

The action suspends the borough’s two-month search for a new manager, said Mayor Stephanie Scott. “We won’t be looking for a new manager until the end of (Earnest’s) contract,” she said after Tuesday’s assembly meeting. Letters will be sent to manager candidates that the job is no longer open, she said.

In taking the action, the assembly rejected Scott’s recommendation that they appoint Earnest as interim manager for up to six months, possibly on a month-to-month basis.

Before the assembly voted, Earnest said he hoped the confusion he cost wasn’t too overwhelming.

“It’s a challenge. I’m going to take two weeks’ (vacation) here, coming up, and get recharged. I just want to hit the ground running in the new fiscal year and be part of that,” Earnest said.

Earnest is paid $108,000 annually and his duties include overseeing the borough’s 75-plus employees and writing its $11.3 million budget.

Assembly member Joanne Waterman made the motion to rescind acceptance of Earnest’s resignation. Earnest resigned March 26, saying he was retiring.

“I think it’s the most prudent thing to do with the schedule of things we’ve got going,” Waterman said. “It’s the best option for the borough at this time” and will give the borough time to transition to new leadership, she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Waterman said that she was happy with Earnest’s job performance and that making Earnest interim manager on a month-to-month basis was “not the best option” for the borough. “It’s not financially beneficial to the borough to renegotiate the manager’s contract at the end of every month,” she said.

Other than a word of agreement from member Daymond Hoffman and a question from member Steve Vick to Earnest on whether rescinding the resignation was a suitable option for him, Smith was the only member to comment on Waterman’s motion.

“When does this end?” Smith asked. “I’m having a hard time with dates. The dates keep getting moved. We’ve accommodated this manager in everything he’s asked for. The man has received two raises in the last couple years. He asked for time off, he’s received it. He wanted to change his termination date and now we’re changing it again... I don’t think it’s right,” Smith said.

Smith recommended Earnest be offered the job of interim manager on a month-to-month basis with no benefits. Smith asked to hear public comments on Waterman’s motion, but Scott said the matter wasn’t open to public discussion.

Ned Rozbicki was the only member of the public who addressed the interim manager appointment. Speaking during public comments at the start of the meeting, Rozbicki said Earnest had not purchased property or demonstrated a commitment to stay here.

“If he was invested in this community, it might be worth it. His future is not tied to Haines like all our futures are,” Rozbicki said.

He recommended the assembly hire Debra Schnabel on a month-to-month basis. He said Schnabel was “totally competent” and had the best interests of the community at heart.

Rozbicki said he’d had “plenty of conflicts” with Schnabel in the past and that he didn’t have coffee with her. “We need someone in the game right now who’s going to be there.” Rozbicki, who is president of the Haines Chamber of Commerce, said he was speaking for himself and not for the organization.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Scott said she would stand by the assembly’s decision to keep Earnest another year.

“It is in the best interest of the municipality to provide for continuity of management of the projects we have on board,” Scott wrote in an e-mail.

Scott said the assembly’s decision “opens more avenues of communication, collaboration (and) cooperation than it closes. I regard it as an opportunity to work differently together.”

The assembly voted in March to appoint an interim manager from among the officers of the Haines Borough. Clerk Julie Cozzi had previously volunteered to serve as interim manager but had retracted the offer after the recent resignation of deputy clerk Jamie Heinz.

Other officers include the manager, chief financial officer, chief of police and borough attorney.

When he resigned in March, Earnest said he was accelerating his retirement. “I wanted to really just clarify and say that I fully intended to retire in 2013, and I just felt that I really wanted to spend more time with my family, so I’ve just accelerated that retirement date up a year,” Earnest told the assembly March 27.

He also said he would be looking for a school for his gifted, nine-year-old son.

In explaining his availability to the assembly last week, Earnest said his son needed more work in creative writing before entering a special school in Nevada.

“There was a second part of the (school’s) application process we were unaware of at that time... The decision was made by his parents and the school that it would be better to defer for another year,” Earnest said Tuesday.

The assembly last week shortlisted a field of 18 manager candidates to eight, including residents Schnabel, police chief Gary Lowe, and Klukwan tribal administrator John Brower.

In response to a reporter’s question, Mayor Scott said she didn’t believe the assembly strayed off its agenda when it moved to rescind its acceptance of the manager’s resignation.

The agenda item for the assembly’s discussion was “interim borough manager appointment.”

“By their action, (the assembly) removed the need for an interim manager. So yes, I am confident that the topic was properly noticed,” Scott wrote in an e-mail.

The CVN also put the question to clerk Cozzi, who serves as the assembly’s parliamentarian.

Schnabel had participated in the vote to accept Earnest’s resignation. But she would have had a conflict of interest on voting to rescind the assembly’s approval of his resignation, Scott said.

“Because the matter related to either the delay or acceleration of the hire of a manager, and because Debra Schnabel is an applicant for the manager position, and because presumably she applied because she would like to fill the position but could not achieve that goal if the position were not vacant, a conflict between personal interest and the interest of the municipality exists,” Scott wrote.

Schnabel said this week that Mayor Scott had told her, from the beginning of the manager search process, not to participate, including not suggesting sample questions for candidates. “She instructed me to call for a conflict of interest,” Schnabel said.