Why are so many assembly members resigning?
February 16, 2023
Last week Tyler Huling resigned from the Haines Borough Assembly. She’s the sixth assembly member in six years to do so. This week, the CVN spoke with current and former public officials to ask: why are so many people resigning?
Huling told the CVN there wasn’t a single reason she quit, but rather described a “slow build” of factors that seemed to compound over time. Other public officials also described various factors that led to their resignations, but two common threads emerged that contributed to burnout. One is a kind of relentless sense of pressure from a small number of residents who fall on various sides of political issues that, at best, felt like an inability for people to respect their private lives and, at worst, felt like bullying. The other factor is a sense of futility that comes from the seemingly never-ending debate from a split populace about what is the best economic path forward.
Margaret Friedenauer resigned from the assembly in June 2017 citing an overwhelming sense of bitterness, cynicism and a lost desire to lead.
“I have unfortunately strayed from focusing on issues and spend too much time now focused on personalities,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “I have become increasingly disrespectful to my fellow assembly members. I no longer feel effective.”
Friedenauer told the CVN this week that one of the main factors that contributed to that bitterness and cynicism was a nearly ceaseless sense of pressure from a few people. She said a handful of residents would drive to her house uninvited to talk politics or relentlessly call to advance their agenda.
“If you’re constantly showing up at my driveway or constantly calling, you’re not letting me share my time with the whole community,” she said. “You’re trying to suck my time into your one issue or your one complaint and draw me away from all of the other things we could be doing. It felt selfish of them, and I never knew to what end. I didn’t always understand what they wanted, what would have made them happy.”
Caitie Rothbart (Kirby) resigned last August for a number of reasons. But, like Friedenauer, she said she became exhausted by a sense of “boundary pushing” from residents. Rothbart’s mother died in 2021. When she eventually had to travel down south to sort out her mother’s affairs, she made clear to residents she needed a few weeks away from borough politics. Those wishes went unrecognized.
“When I was working on clearing out my mom’s house and spreading her ashes, I was getting phone calls and emails. They’d say, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ or ‘Why aren’t you talking to me?’” Rothbart said. “I was clear that I was going to be off for three weeks. I got a lot of pressure and what I felt was pushy and bullying behavior.”
Such contact between the public and the assembly boiled over at an assembly meeting in January when Don Turner Jr. criticized Huling for not returning his phone calls.
“I have tried to reach out many times to Miss Huling in the last week and a half,” he wrote. “Her 766 number does not work. I found her cell number and left messages for her to contact me about the planning commission. I have got no response.”
At the meeting, Huling said she disconnected her landline because she had been receiving harassing phone calls and that she did not respond to voicemail because she was on vacation out of town. Turner’s public comment also criticized Huling for being a “newcomer to Haines” who was “against development.”
Luck Dunbar resigned his assembly seat in the late 2000s because he said he missed too many meetings while working in Gustavus. He said he understands why people resign. “It’s very exhausting. I remember going out to eat and letting a burger go cold while you’re cornered at the Bamboo Room. That kind of thing happened a lot. But that’s part of your duty, that’s part of the deal.”
Mayor Douglas Olerud told the CVN this week that before he filed paperwork to run for Mayor, he decided he would only serve one term. Olerud served on the former Haines City Council and borough assembly and anticipated the pressures others describe when he considered running for Mayor two years ago. He said he felt a similar sense of bitterness after an earlier term in government.
“(In 2009), when I decided not to run again, I was so burnt out and there were people I didn’t want to listen to because of the way they talked to me at meetings and in the public,” Olerud said. “There were people I didn’t even want to associate with. The only way I could convince myself (to run for Mayor) was to tell myself it was going to be one term.”
Olerud ran, in part, on trying to make political discourse in Haines more respectful. He said he’s become calloused to what Huling described in her resignation letter as a “toxic space.”
“I’ve seen letters to my dad with people stating they were going to kill him,” Olerud said. “I’m probably a little more calloused. I’ve grown up with it. If I were new to Haines, I might refer to it as toxic as well.”
Olerud stops short of calling Haines political discourse toxic. He said people who care about local issues often speak and act when their emotions run high. “When you have emotional discussions about anything, you’re going to have people that cross the line and say things in a manner that’s disrespectful, inappropriate and condescending toward others. It’s easy to point out one or two people, but I see those characteristics from a lot of people. I guess I don’t consider it as much bullying as it is a passionate defense of their viewpoint.”
Another factor public officials cite as reasons for burnout include an unwillingness from residents to accept an assembly member’s vote that strayed from what some voters expected of them. Rothbart said people who originally supported her candidacy, including friends, often failed to move on after they didn’t agree with a vote she made.
“I think there’s an expectation of ‘us versus them’ even though nobody says it. It’s not helpful. I think it’s really hard for people to remember that we’re sitting in that room for the whole town and not just (our) friends,” Rothbart said. “It is hard when the thing you want to do and the thing that would be best for the town won’t be the thing that the people you hang out with will be supportive of. It can be pretty exhausting.”
Even former assembly members have resigned after outcomes they disagreed with. Mike Case resigned and walked out of the chambers during a meeting after the assembly voted to hire Debra Schnabel as manager. Sean Maidy, who resigned in 2019, quit after a disagreement over a vote related to the interpretation of borough charter.
Maidy told the CVN last week he also resigned because of a sense of futility—a sense that too many people were unwilling to change their minds. He still feels bitter.
“Honestly, I’ve tried really hard to put all that crap behind me. The futility of it, the back door dealings, the popularity contest politics. It’s no surprise people leave,” Maidy told the CVN last week. “Everyone in Haines is always talking about this is just how politics is and it’s the same everywhere you go. I can tell you right now it isn’t and I’m glad that it is behind me.”
Huling told the CVN last week she sees an “ideological war” playing out in the valley, between residents with values that are at odds in respect to what the local economy should look like, which “underlies every aspect of the Haines Borough’s governance.”
Rothbart also cited a sense of stagnation in local politics. As long as a similar cast of characters circulate through the assemblies and committees, not much will change, she said.
“The political atmosphere is just kind of stagnant and it circles around the same parties (making) the same arguments,” Rothbart said. “How many years have (the same people) been on the assembly? How many times have (they) made the same arguments? That’s why we are still where we are.”
Not everyone agrees that having young perspectives on the assembly is desirable. Haines should be led “by a council of elders,” said Tom Morphet, a long-time observer and participant in local politics. He told the CVN the assembly should be made up of “middle-aged or older people with a long history in this town who know the history of issues and where the land mines are buried, and how to operate in what's frequently a war zone. Those folks have dropped out, in my opinion, because they don't want to be victims.”
In her resignation letter, Huling said she was uninterested in continuing such a fight. “I once thought that inhabiting this role was a worthwhile sacrifice,” she said. “Now I see it as an ineffective use of my time and energy.”
Friedenauer said while some may have become accustomed to Haines’ politics, it’s clear others are also unwilling to cross the minefield.
“For people who do move in and want to make Haines their home and haven’t been around those dynamics their whole life, it’s not okay. It’s a lot less tolerable for some people. There are a million other things to do and care about,” Friedenauer said. “Haines is weird, man.”