Assembly and school board turnover from the recent municipal election and pending changes at the top of the borough and police department provide us an opportunity to refocus and redirect our government, as it reflects our community priorities.
On the national level, the “masters of the game” in business and government have made a mess that may take years to clean up. The outlook isn’t that much rosier in the State of Alaska. Because we have only limited sway on national and state issues that have tremendous influence on our lives, it’s critical that, as a community, we manage well the matters we control.
Toward that end, our new leaders might consider the following ideas:
1. Consider proportionality. Too often, hot-bottom issues generate debate disproportionate to their importance. Big issues deserve a lot of time. Small ones don’t. Formulating a position on a permitting process for a hydro plant above a sockeye lake justifies hours of testimony. Raising the limits on the numbers of chickens allowed per household should be doable with a quick show of hands. Extended debates on small or symbolic issues bog down government, overtax staff and rob energy from more difficult and complex matters that are more deserving of our time and attention.
2. Keep sight of the big issues. How to make up for declining state and federal funding, how to maintain facilities, how to support and build our retail sector to keep money in town, and the future of our schools are issues likely to require creativity, research, collaboration and time. If we spend much of our collective brainpower debating where heli-skiing can occur, we’ll never get around to addressing the larger issues that have much greater impact on our community.
3. Build community. Like our nation, our population is prone to divide into ideological camps that don’t meet except to disagree at public meetings. Divide and conquer is an old and reliable strategy for dominating groups of people and rendering them powerless. As a community, we conquer our ability to work together when we take up sides unnecessarily. Efforts like the mayor’s picnic – that bring together residents in a neutral setting – should be fostered. Other initiatives that might be considered are game and music nights at the public library on Fridays, and providing funding to ensure a community play is staged each winter, starting in January. Or how about investing some of the borough permanent fund in a small, rope-tow ski hill operated by volunteers?
4. Promote basic economic development. We don’t agree on much, but we should be able to agree on this much – let’s keep people living here year-round and encourage them to invest their money here, including by shopping in local stores. There’s money in Haines. Recycling it through the community enriches us all. Getting residents to invest in our town isn’t a one-way street. Businesses and government also must invest to provide an example and a statement of confidence that money spent here is a sound investment. A tax-free day held in the middle of winter – such as done in other small towns in Southeast – is one way the municipality can help. Businesses can help by keeping their prices competitive and continuing to support non-profits and similar community efforts.
5. Demand results from government employees. Full-time borough and school jobs offer long-term security and pay competitive wages and benefit packages that are still better than most jobs in the private sector. Because of this disparity, government often “competes” with the private sector for local talent. There’s nothing patently wrong with that equation, if our public employees are working harder and getting more done than their peers in the private sector. People are willing to pay for value. Worker evaluations – including those of the borough’s top jobs – need to be regular, honest and rigorous. Working for the public is a privilege. It rightly carries high expectations.
We’re entering an era in which our town’s old supports are thinning, collapsing or taking new shapes. It’s critical that we beef up our community – in the form of our collective, government decision-making – to brace ourselves for those changes.