Haines averages new manager every 1.8 years
May 28, 2020
Does Haines have an inability to retain borough managers or is the community’s turnover rate par for the course?
While all communities experience manager turnover, the recent turnover rate in Haines is higher than that of many neighboring communities. Since 2002, Haines has averaged a permanent borough manager hire every 1.8 years. During this same time period, other municipalities including Skagway, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan Borough have averaged a new manager every three to six years.
On Tuesday, May 19, the assembly and Mayor fired manager Debra Schnabel in a 4-3 vote, a decision that surprised many residents. However, this is not the first time Haines has abruptly fired a borough manager in recent years.
The borough manager position was created in October 2002 when Haines became a consolidated borough with an assembly-manager form of government. Under this system, the manager is responsible for ensuring the borough operates smoothly, in keeping with policy directives from the assembly.
Since consolidation, Haines has had 10 borough managers (not counting interim managers who filled in during the search for a permanent hire). Of these, four were either fired or resigned to avoid being fired: Robert Venables, Tom Bolen, Bill Seward and Debra Schnabel; five resigned for personal reasons; and one died of a heart attack: Marco Pignalberi. The longest-serving manager was Mark Earnest with a tenure of three years and 10 months, and the shortest was Bob Caldwell, who resigned a week into the job after learning he had prostate cancer.
Municipal manager turnover is not unique to Haines. Communities throughout the nation struggle to retain managers. In many cases, the turnover is due to changes in local politics.
As a manager, “your boss changes every year,” said former Alaska Municipal League executive director Kathie Wasserman, who worked with communities across the state for decades before retiring in 2018.
Managers serve at the pleasure of the assembly, and new assembly members get elected every year.
“A lot of people run for office because they want to make changes in their community,” Wasserman said. Often, this means that after a few years, the assembly looks very different and has a new set of priorities.
In the cycle Wasserman described, a manager is hired by one set of assembly members. Once there’s enough turnover at the assembly level, the manager is replaced with a new one who better reflects the values of the new assembly.
In Schnabel’s case, none of the assembly members involved in her hiring were still serving on the assembly when she was fired.
The subject of manager turnover has received nationwide attention from researchers. A 2005 journal article titled “Tenure of City Managers: Examining the Dual Meanings of ‘Average Tenure’” concluded, based on service records of 364 managers serving 118 cities from 1980-2002, that the average manager tenure is 6.9 years.
Alaska’s municipal manager turnover rate is believed to be even higher. Those involved in local politics often cite 2.5 years as the average manager tenure in the state, though the number does not appear to be tied to any recorded study or survey.
Wasserman declined to give a precise estimate of the average manager tenure in Alaska. She said the numbers vary widely between communities and retention can fluctuate over time, but it’s likely managers in the state leave their jobs at a higher rate than those in other parts of the country.
Municipal management suffers from the same turnover issues that plague other professions in Alaska like law enforcement and teaching, Wasserman said. It’s challenging to find high quality candidates who are here for the long haul. Those who move to the state may leave behind family in the Lower 48, which eventually pulls them back, or may view the position as a stepping stone to larger, more lucrative management positions.
“In Alaska we often get capable executives who are intrigued enough to come here but not engaged enough to stay long term,” said Ketchikan resident Dave Kiffer, who has served as a local elected official since 2003.
Wasserman said one reason Haines might see a higher rate of turnover than other nearby communities is because of the high level of political engagement among residents.
“Haines, unlike some municipalities, is a very politically active community, which makes it more difficult for the city manager,” Wasserman said. “You have very distinctive sides and viewpoints,” making it harder to please everyone.
Venables said while he doesn’t think the manager turnover rate affects long-term planning in the Haines Borough, it’s a symptom of an underlying issue in the community that prevents it from attracting high-quality manager candidates.
“(The turnover rate) goes beyond the manager’s average tenure and goes more to the community’s tenor and reputation on how it handles divisive issues,” Venables said.
Haines’ manager tenure is not only shorter but also more likely to end in a firing than manager tenure in many nearby communities.
Of the Southeast communities polled by the CVN, Haines’ rate of manager firings, or forced resignations, is second only to Sitka’s. Sitka has fired three of the five managers it has had in the past 15 years. Haines has fired four out of 10. Wrangell hasn’t fired a manager in the past 17 years, and Petersburg has had one manager firing since 2001.
Ketchikan is a bit of an anomaly in the region. It is not a unified borough, so the city and borough governments exist side-by-side, each with their own manager. The Ketchikan Borough has had three managers since 2003, and none were fired or forced to resign. The City of Ketchikan has had the same manager for more than 25 years.
Ketchikan’s relatively high rate of manager retention may be tied to its size.
“Being one of the bigger towns… we usually attract managers who are not on their first rodeo and come into the job with more realistic expectations,” Kiffer said.
Haines’ manager turnover is distinguished from other communities in the region in yet another way—since borough consolidation, Haines hasn’t had a manager who stuck around for longer than three years and 10 months. During this same time period, Skagway, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan Borough have all had at least one manager who served for somewhere between five and 10 years.
Former Haines Borough managers acknowledge room for improvement in the community’s manager retention.
Venables suggested setting a term limit for managers as a way to increase retention.
“The simplest improvement might be to have the manager’s contract include a termination date—two to three years with action needed for renewal—along with a significant cost for early dismissal,” Venables said. “That could keep both parties committed and engaged proactively to maximize the relationship while giving both sides an honorable, and expected, end date should the assembly composition change.”
Annual performance evaluations for managers could be another means of improving manager-assembly relationships. Although Petersburg, Sitka, Skagway, Wrangell and Ketchikan evaluate managers’ performances on an annual basis, Haines doesn’t.
Venables said during his time as manager his performance was reviewed through daily interactions with the assembly, but that he remembers only one formal evaluation during his three and a half years of service.
Schnabel said she received a performance review three months after her initial hire in 2017 and another in 2018. Only two of the assembly members who participated in the 2018 performance review were still on the assembly when Schnabel was fired.
Seward, Schnabel’s predecessor, declined to comment on the record about his time as borough manager or the community’s retention issues.