Two administrator candidates who have proposed managing Sitka as a team offered a rigorous defense of their idea Tuesday afternoon (8-6-13).

Rob Allen and Robin Sherman — a husband-and-wife duo with close ties to Sitka — were interviewed by the Assembly, along with four other individual candidates.

Four more semi-finalists were scheduled for interviews this evening. (Note: Following the second round of semi-finalist interviews, the assembly narrowed its short list to four candidates. See related story.)
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In addition to the team of Allen and Sherman, the other candidates who interviewed with the assembly were Robin Bennett, the current town manager of Southwest Harbor, Maine; Pamela Caskie, a former city manager of Alliance, Nebraska; Sitkan and former SEARHC vice-president Mark Gorman; and current Sitka schools superintendent Steve Bradshaw.

But it was the team of Allen and Sherman, with the most unconventional application, who faced some of the most difficult questioning — much of it stemming from a six-page memo drafted by the city’s legal department listing 24 specific concerns of department heads and senior staff about having a management team run city hall.

Municipal attorney Robin Koutchak summarized some of the concerns in her memo, writing “Having invited comments from Department Heads and key clerical and administrative positions, all but one expressed the feeling of this being ‘disastrous’ and could not see it as anything but ‘bad’.”

Sherman took that criticism and decided to play offense:

“We’re concerned that that memo is focused on the wrong set of risks. We’re concerned that the real risk here is that the next city administrator will focus on business as usual, and making city hall run better. While that’s necessary and important, we believe what this community really needs is leaders who recognize that the loss of jobs and the rising cost of living are a serious threat to the long-term health and the quality of life in Sitka. The city needs leaders who are going to get a handle on the Blue Lake expansion project which we’re concerned has the potential to bankrupt the city. Sitka needs to keep people here, and attract new residents by promoting economic development and investing in affordable housing. And it needs to bring new public and private resources to the community.”

Most of the questions the candidates fielded were fairly standard: “How would you handle a disagreement with the assembly? Describe your three greatest strengths and weaknesses as an administrator,” etc. Deputy Mayor Pete Esquiro, however, challenged Rob Allen on his civic service. Allen, in addition to helping build his family’s business, Allen Marine, served one term on the Sitka Assembly, and ran unsuccessfully for both mayor and later, the legislature.

Esquiro asked Allen why the assembly in his previous term failed to plan for accumulated depreciation — basically, the high costs of replacing city infrastructure and equipment — and what he, as a successful businessman, would do about it now.

Allen responded that depreciation was funded differently in business and in government. Governments have the ability to bond, and he said that, with good planning, you should stage capital projects around your bonding capability.

A more business-like approach, Allen suggested, was a recipe for disaster.

“The problem I think is that if you’re trying to build up a huge, huge reserve, is that at some point you’re going to get an assembly that says, Gosh we’re sitting on $50-60 million here to replace all this stuff. That’s a huge pot of money, we don’t need to be taxing the citizens — let’s use that up before we do anything else. You’re setting up a real danger for things to not happen.”

Esquiro also broke from the standard question list during the assembly’s interview with Sitkan Mark Gorman, who served for years as a vice-president at SEARHC, and lately has been country director for an international non-governmental organization called World Education in Laos.

Esquiro asked Gorman to explain what bearing any of this work had on being a city administrator.

“Sure, that’s a great question. I think as a manager for the last 35 years, those skills are transferable to most environments. Certainly my work at SEARHC was highly complex, highly political, and highly charged. Working in the tribal communities with different agendas, competing agendas, trying to do resource allocation with limited resources, and do it in a sensitive, reasonable, and operational way I think has direct application to what I’ve learned about municipal operations in Sitka.”

Gorman said his overseas experience helped make him adaptable, and a quick learner in a variety of organizations. He said he saw his role as a leader as making the people who worked for him successful.

Not all the pressure in the interviews came from Deputy Mayor Esquiro. When Sitka Schools superintendent Steve Bradshaw’s turn came around, it was assembly member Mike Reif who asked how the candidate would balance his passion for education with other critical needs in the community.

Esquiro said he remembered a particularly tense budget meeting two years ago when Bradshaw reportedly said he was “not going to play fair.”

Bradshaw said he had a long memory, too.

“When you ran, I believe Michelle (Putz) was there, Matt (Hunter) was there — I can’t remember for sure — and I asked you what you thought was the role of government. And of course one of the answers that you all came back with was education of the populace. I’m a strong believer in that. At the same time I’m fully aware of fiscal responsibility and how that plays in the decisions that the assembly and the (school) board both make.”

Bradshaw did not step back from his principles.

“And I have to tell you, Pete, I never apologize for being passionate about education.”

Bradshaw did apologize about his “randomness.” In response to a question from Michelle Putz, he said one of his strengths was the ability to surround himself with people who could help him “stay within the confines of what he was trying to accomplish.”

The interviews with the two out-of-town candidates in this round, Robin Bennett and Pamela Caskie, were a bit more conventional. Bennett’s computer was broken, so her answers were given over the telephone rather than videoconference, and were not available over the PA system in the assembly chambers. Bennett referred to herself as a calculated risk-taker, and she noted that she had never had to leave any of her municipal management jobs under duress.

That was not the case with Pamela Caskie. She said she’d been fired from her last two jobs, one as city manager of Alliance, Nebraska, and the other as the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Caskie has been out of municipal government for the last two years. She told the assembly that she missed it, and had learned her lesson.

“I have had a had a tendency to be too blunt. And that has affected people. I have spent the past two years trying to figure out how to convey this same message without so much bluntness. The reality is, I can’t tell you if I’m successful or not because I haven’t had the opportunity to go back to work to put it into action. But it is certainly my goal to learn to use what I have learned to still be a straightforward person, but to be a little more sensitive to the way the message is being received.”

Assembly member Thor Christianson thanked Caskie for the most honest answer to a question about a candidate’s weaknesses that he had ever heard.

Caskie did pull a few smiles with some of her other answers. She said she first became enamored with municipal government as a thirteen-year-old, when she bombed a social studies test and had to make it up by going to a local council meeting.

She also said that she was not a morning person, and you would probably not find her at her desk at 7:30 AM, but rather at 8:15 “with toothpicks in my eyes.”