Last week, the Sitka Assembly made its choice for municipal administrator. His name is Mark Gorman, and he’s called Sitka home for 35 years. At the moment, though, he’s thousands of miles away, in the last days of his current job, which is based in Asia.
When he gets back to Baranof Island, he’ll be responsible for the management of more than 150 city employees, and the day-to-day operations of the City and Borough of Sitka.
KCAW spoke with Mark Gorman late last week about his background and his hopes for the job.
We’re going to begin on the other side of the globe, in Laos. The country faced heavy bombardment during the war in Vietnam. Today, it’s one of the five remaining countries on the planet to describe itself as communist, and is home to about 6.5 million people.
It’s also where you’ll find Sitka’s new municipal administrator at the moment, wrapping up work on his old job at the nongovernmental organization World Education.
Mark Gorman is standing in front of a cafe called “Craters.” The place is decorated with old bombs dropped by the U.S. Air Force. We’re talking on a scratchy Skype connection, and I can hear traffic in the background. Gorman turns on his camera and lets me have a look around.
“This is a 2,000-pounder, this one right here,” he says. “This is the real deal. This is the work that the organization I work for does here. There’s an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs still in Laos.”
In Laos, World Education teaches children how to avoid unexploded bombs, among its other projects.
“It’s been a remarkably rewarding, stimulating job,” Gorman said. “The Lao people, and the culture is really wonderful. It’ll be hard to leave, but Nancy and I are ready to return home.”
Gorman says it wasn’t difficult was deciding to apply for the Sitka municipal administrator job.
“It’s really the honor of my professional career,” he said. “It’s a position I’ve looked at for well over a decade, and to have the opportunity now to perform in that position is really very exciting to me.”
Municipal administrators have seven bosses — the various members of the Sitka Assembly. Those bosses change on a regular basis, and with that change can come major shifts in course for the city. It’s a high profile position that can include a lot of blame when things go wrong, and not a whole lot of credit when things go right. It involves long, irregular hours. So, what makes a guy look at that job for more than a decade and want it?
“I guess that’s one of the things I’m very attracted to about the job,” he said. “I’ve watched it for many many years, and I’ve watched the Assembly change in terms of its orientation and its strategies. I think to function highly in that environment is something that really attracts me. I’ve always enjoyed professional challenges, and I’d like to believe that I’m up to the challenge.”
Gorman’s has done relief work in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Bosnia. And he spent more than 20 years at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, including about five months as interim CEO in 2007.
But it was the U.S. Forest Service that brought him to Sitka, in 1978.
“It was kind of a mistake,” he said. “I’d been in the Peace Corps, and I really wanted to come to Alaska after my Peace Corps service. As a Peace Corps volunteer, you had noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs. So, I sent my standard 171 form to all federal agencies in Alaska. I got a call from the U.S. Forest Service in Sitka saying ‘We liked your application, would you be willing to come up and work for us, and we’ll pay for you to come up?’ And I said ‘That sounds great.’
“I didn’t know where Sitka was, but I was eager to come to Alaska,” he said. “The first day on my job at the Forest Service, I was brought in to the HR department, and sat down and the HR director said ‘I’ve got some bad news for you.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Well, in the Xerox copy we got of your application from the regional office, where it said ‘major in college,’ all we could read was ‘-ology,’ and we assumed it was biology. But now that we have the hard copy of your application, we can see it was anthropology. We can’t start you at the GS-7 that we offered.”
GS-7 is the name of a pay grade. His starting salary in today’s dollars would have been around $64,000. Instead, they offered to let him work at a much, much lower rate. Gorman said he wasn’t fazed.
“The moment I stepped off the plane in Sitka, in July 1978, I was infatuated,” he said. “There was no way Sitka was not going to become my home.”
Gorman says he’s hoping to be back in Sitka by the third week of October, to start work as municipal administrator.
“Job No. 1 for me is getting to know all the departments within city hall, and developing the relationships with the department heads and the employees… and developing that trusting relationship which, from everything I’ve gathered, was nonexistent five months ago.”
Sitka’s budget will be a big concern for Gorman. The current budget is balanced, but city staff and members of the Assembly have been warning for years that the trajectory is alarming. They talk about infrastructure needs that vastly outweigh the money available to fund them. They say the money coming in might drop off soon, and the city will always have rising costs to cover.
Pete Esquiro asked each administrator candidate if they understood the difference between a balanced budget and a sustainable budget. Think Band-Aids for balanced, surgery for sustainable. Gorman says he understands.
“From my knowledge, and my conversations with Jay Sweeney, the current budget is not sustainable, but it is balanced,” he said. “Somehow revenues have to come in line with expenses in the next few years. How that is achieved is something I’ll be learning more about the first few months I’m on the job.”
Sitka, he says, has a lot going for it.
“It’s got a remarkable talent pool,” Gorman said. “I was in Sitka for six weeks before I returned to Laos, and I spent a lot of time talking to people. The energy, the innovation, the ideas, the vision that are in all parts of the community, whether it’s private sector, nonprofit, small business, community organizations, there’s a vitality there that I’ve not seen anywhere else in my professional career. That’s asset No. 1, just a tremendous collective energy to move the community forward.”
And what is Sitka missing?
“I’m not sure I would say ‘What are we missing?’” Gorman said. “Some of the challenges we’re looking at are the high cost of doing business in Sitka, the high cost of housing, the lack of affordable housing. I think the workforce is becoming an issue in terms of attracting a young workforce that work in our service industries.”
If you’re listening to this in Sitka, chances are you’re affected by some of those issues. And chances are you’ll have some interaction, directly or indirectly, with the new city administrator. We asked him about his management style.
Gorman: I was just talking to my current supervisor in Boston about my transition and the timing of it. She was saying how the staff in Vientiane, Laos, are feeling very anxious about me leaving. She said ‘Mark, they really like you. They feel very safe with you.’ That word safe would be one that I’d start off with. I’d like to believe that people are comfortable with me, and they feel safe, which means I can listen to anything, including views and ideas which I might not initially think are the best. But I’m open to that.
KCAW: When you look at this job, what are your concerns?
Gorman: A question that was repeated in both my interviews is the longevity of Sitka city administrators. I forget what the average is, but it’s not multiple years. One of the things I want to look at is what contributes to the short tenure of city administrators. I’ve certainly already had some conversations with Jay Sweeney about this. It’s a huge job, and whether it’s entirely doable by one person, I think that’s a legitimate question that needs to be asked and answered. In a proactive way, I want to look at how that job is organized, what are the supports that are going into it, and are there different approaches to making it a more achievable assignment.”
Longevity brings up another question.
KCAW: How long before you start thinking about the retired life?
Gorman: (laughing) One of the [things] I heard when I first moved to Sitka was from an old guy who was teaching me how to take care of my boat. He said ‘When you stop building your house, it’s time to die.’ I can’t really answer that question. I see myself being active till I drop.