Why has the Haines Borough run through seven managers in 11 years?
1) Good managers are hard to find.
2) Haines is difficult to manage.
3) A combination of #1 and #2.
The correct answer is likely #3. We can’t easily change #2. On the whole, our community is cantankerous. Local politicians like to say we’re “passionate” and “diverse,” but those are mostly code words for cranky. (We may actually be crazy, but let’s save that for another editorial.)
That brings us back to #1, that good managers aren’t so common. The question then is how to find and hire one of these rarities.
Last week’s assembly interview with borough manager finalist David Sosa showed we could stand more effort in the interview process.
The borough paid $3,173 to fly Sosa and his wife here from North Carolina, but the assembly’s interview with Sosa lasted only about 90 minutes and most of the assembly’s questions were softballs, i.e. “Describe your management style.”
Sosa, who was impeccably polite, well-dressed and articulate, fielded them cleanly, like a dog that was being thrown steaks.
For reasons she didn’t explain, Mayor Stephanie Scott didn’t allow members of the public to ask Sosa questions during the public session. To the town’s credit, about 25 citizens showed up to hear Sosa, and the crowd of those who couldn’t be trusted to ask questions in public included author Heather Lende, former Mayor Mike Case and former assembly member Deborah Vogt.
The Mayor instead directed members of the public wanting to ask questions to do so privately during a reception at the library. I got to ask Sosa about six questions at the library, then I was chided for “dominating” the event.
As Sosa has never worked as a municipal manager, has never lived in Alaska, and has held no career jobs outside of the U.S. military, you’d think we’d have a lot of questions for him. In fact, we could reasonably expect Sosa would anticipate a rigorous questioning, as he was interviewing for a $100,000 job that involves overseeing an $11 million budget, supervising 70-plus employees and serving as our official representative.
Because of his lack of on-the-job experience, it might be helpful if some of the questions directed Sosa’s way would involve theoretical situations, such as:
“The borough’s planning commission interprets code in a novel way as to allow a previously prohibited use. What, if anything, would you advise the assembly to do?”
“You receive a report from state environmental officials saying the borough is in violation of several sections of state and federal law regarding sewage treatment. A local environmentalist comes into your office and demands to see the report. What would you say?”
“You believe a local issue should be on the assembly’s agenda for discussion. However, the Mayor, who approves the meeting agenda and doesn’t favor discussion of this issue, refuses to allow it on the agenda. What do you do?”
Questions in this vein would help illuminate the understanding and judgment of a managerial candidate, as well as his savvy in a municipal setting.
As Sosa has never lived in Alaska, other questions would reveal research he has done, such as: Do you know how often the Alaska Legislature meets? Ever heard of a subsistence hunt? What is a Native allotment?
The borough’s hiring procedures are shaky, including that the manager and police chief jobs were advertised only on a handful of websites, resulting in a limited field of candidates..
Short of hiring a recruitment firm, assembly members need a battery of questions grounded close to an applicant’s job to help discern whether a finalist would be a good fit.
Without such questions, hiring a manager after an interview is like getting married after a first date. Such a marriage may last, but the odds are against it, as our recent history with managers has shown.
One local wag came up with the below questions for Sosa. We publish them here, solely in the interest of injecting some levity into the discussion.
Are you for or against abortion?
Do you own a gun or guns?
Do you drink? How much?
Have you ever got a DUI?
Have you experimented with LSD?
Are you liberal or conservative?
Who is the hottest movie star?
Who is your favorite football team?
What is your overall net worth?
Did your parents spank you?
What did you do to deserve a spankin’?
Are you a gamer? Which ones?
What will you do when your wife says, “This place is hell.”?
Harbormaster Phil Benner deserves praise for making Haines only the third harbor in Alaska to earn a “clean” rating.
Citizens have been asking for improvements at the harbor for years. Benner and his staff actually did something about it.
The clean harbors initiative promises to save the borough time and money in waste disposal while at the same time making the harbor cleaner and friendlier to users.
That fits nicely into the hopes of harbor expansion advocates, who would like to attract more transient boats here.
The changes at the harbor are also a refreshing example of bucking the mentality of “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” a phrase too often used in a small town to compensate for laziness in thought and action.
The world is changing and our harbor is changing with it.
Benner has set a worthy example of the good that conscientious government workers can bring to our community. Bravo.
-- Tom Morphet