The Sitka Assembly is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 6 o’clock inside Harrigan Centennial Hall to make its choice. Members will select from four finalists, after having interviewed them at the end of last week.
The list began with 53 people. Then it was 10, with videoconference interviews earlier this month. From there, the Sitka Assembly picked four finalists. Each of them sat Thursday and Friday for separate, hour-long interviews in open session.
They each received similar questions, many drawn from a numbered list in front of each Assembly member. Topics ranged from management style to feelings about the city’s comprehensive plan, to how they would expect to relate to the Assembly itself. We don’t have enough time in this story to share everything that was said, so for the purposes of this newscast, we’re going to focus on one question, asked by Assembly member Thor Christianson:
“You have a community member come in with a complaint, and you can’t help them, or you can’t give them what they want, for various reasons,” he said. “How do you deal with that?”
First up: Pam Caskie, formerly city manager in Alliance, Nebraska. She left that post in 2010 after five years. Since then, she’s run a consulting business in Loveland, Colo.
“If you’re looking to put somebody in this position that says yes to everybody, to keep everybody happy — and there are cities that want that — I’m probably not the person you want to hire,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think that’s my role. My role is to be the stopper. The department head says yes, but if their answer is ‘no,’ they appeal to me. My job might be to say ‘yes,’ occasionally overruling a department head, but by the time the department head has said no, there’s a pretty good reason for it, and my job is to backup the department head unless I see something nobody else sees.”
Caskie says she’ll listen, and at the very least help citizens navigate the system of government.
“The idea is to do that and still have them walk out and be a friend. That’s a challenge,” she said. “Sometimes it’s more of a challenge depending on the amount of emotion attached to it. I try very very hard to say no, explain the reasons for the no, and have them walking out still thinking I heard them and that I cared about their personal situation.”
The next candidate to interview was Mark Gorman. The former SEARHC vice president has called Sitka home since 1978, and has a long resume of foreign relief work. Presently, he’s country director for World Education’s operation in Laos, in southeast Asia.
Here’s his answer to the question, which, remember, is how do you deal with it when you can’t give a member of the public what they want?
“I would like to believe compassionately,” he said.
Gorman says he’s encountered the situation a lot in his career.
“The best you can hope for in those situations is that the person may leave disappointed, but if they feel that they’ve been heard and respected, then you’re ahead,” Gorman said.
He told the Assembly about being adopted into the Eagle Wolf clan in Klukwan, and words of advice from an elder.
“’Always speak the truth and you never need to remember what you told people.’ That wisdom — I often come back to it — is when you’re faced with a difficult situation, look the person in the eye and tell them the truth,” Gorman said. “They may not like it but they tend to walk away feeling respected.”
Cynna Gubatayo, the current deputy borough manager in Ketchikan, says she’s also had a lot of experience being unable to give a resident something they’re asking for. Gubatayo says everyone who comes into her office gets a fair hearing.
“Often times I find their complaint or their issue isn’t resolved, because their case has been handled properly,” Gubatayo said. “We can’t waive fees unless that authority is specifically given to us. We can’t waive deadlines unless the authority is specifically given to us. There are these immutable things that just can’t be changed. When people run up against them it does make them upset.”
She says she takes the issue back to the department heads, and gets multiple sides of the story. And she says sometimes people leave happier, even if they didn’t get what they were hoping from the city.
“And sometimes it’s good,” Gubatayo said. “They’re happy that you listened, they’re happy they had a say. Sometimes they’re not. But everyone deserves their opportunity to speak and to be heard.”
Jim Pascale was the final interview before the Assembly last week. He was administrator of Princeton Township, New Jersey, for about 30 years. Pascale was never directly asked how he’d deal with being unable to satisfy the request of a member of the public. But he did address the topic when Mayor Mim McConnell asked him about his management style.
“The general public is always right,” he said. “The customer is always right.”
Pascale said it’s his job to resolve issues, especially between the public and city department heads.
“Usually I find when they come to me they’ve calmed down a little bit,” he said. “They’re actually a lot more respectful, and we talk. If the department head couldn’t do something, when they hear it again from the administrator, they usually accept that. They’ve had their day in court. Or conversely, if the department head didn’t handle it right, I’ll make sure it gets handled right.”
Four finalists, and four answers on how they relate to the public, especially in uncomfortable situations. Assembly members concluded the interviews Friday night, and had the weekend to deliberate individually. They’re expected to come out of tonight’s meeting with an offer for one of the candidates.
Assembly members hope to have the new administrator on the job by the beginning of October. The job has been open since then-Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley resigned in April. City Finance Director Jay Sweeney has served as interim municipal administrator since then. Sweeney did not apply for the permanent position.
The salary for the municipal administrator is advertised at around $125,000.