The Sitka assembly interviews administrator candidate Bryan Bertacchi via Skype. Although 2 of the 3 candidates at this stage were local, the assembly decided to level the playing field via Skype and some of the new technology at the renovated Harrigan Centennial Hall. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Sitka Assembly interviewed its three top candidates for municipal administrator Wednesday night (3-22-17), but didn’t reach consensus on a final pick.

Several members said they’d be interested in narrowing the finalist pool down to two, for face-to-face interviews. But some also were willing to re-open the pool, and possibly, to hire a recruitment firm.

Downloadable audio.

The candidates are Bryan Bertacchi, Dave Miller, and Carey Meyer. Bertacchi and Miller are both current Sitka employees, and Meyer is the public works director in Homer.

The three candidates each used their 45-minutes to display what put them in the finalist pool in the first place.

For Bertacchi, Sitka’s utility director, it was a detailed understanding of the mechanisms of municipal finance, the issues involved in structuring rates, and the pushback city officials are subject to in taking on difficult decisions.

Last year, for instance, Bertacchi was asked to represent the city’s interest on the Sitka Community Hospital Board.

“When I volunteered to be chairman of the hospital board, and I learned the same thing in the electric utility director role, that when you make hard decisions people tend to attack you personally. And that defines a really important attribute of whoever sits in the job. The question is: Do you have a thick skin, does it roll off your back? And the answer is yes, it even makes me work harder in the current role I have.”

Bertacchi submitted a unique application. He’s proposed serving as both Sitka’s administrator and utility director for two years, then reverting to being utility director again after the city’s current financial problems have stabilized.

Among those problems is paying down debt for the Blue Lake Hydro expansion. Bertacchi was asked how Sitka could avoid incurring more debt for needed projects in the future, like harbors.

“A lot of it surrounds that landslide risk issue, and I think we have to be very thoughtful how we go forward with that because I think we need to provide new businesses in this town, and new jobs in construction. And I think that’s a key issue in itself. And I think it requires a lot of deep thinking and diving deep into that bucket because it’s really going to have a big impact on a lot of what we do.”

Dave Miller’s answer to staying out of debt was that “Sitka needs to get out and sell ourselves.”

Miller is a 29-year Sitka resident, and the town’s current fire chief, though he began his career in Sitka as food service manager at Sheldon Jackson College.

Miller focused on his personable style, his ability to iron out conflict through communication.

But he was also realistic that not every problem in Sitka had an easy answer, and that user fees were on the rise.

“People are going to have to understand that they’re going to have to pay to use these facilities. We don’t want to chase them out of the harbors. That’s not the goal in life. But there’s no easy money out there right now. We’re just going to have to work hard with the state and the feds — and ourselves — to get more business in town to make it work.”

The fire department operates on a budget of about $2 million. Miller admitted that he would rely on the expertise of the city’s finance department to manage Sitka’s $90 million operation. But Miller suggested that, despite his easy-going style — he could handle a mountain of challenges. He pointed to August, 2015:

“Landslides. We had a record number of EMS calls. We had a dive death, when a guy jumped off the bridge. We had about two weeks super-busy. Two weeks of maybe three or four hours of sleep a night. And the whole community came together to make it happen.”

The third candidate to interview was Carey Meyer, the public works director for Homer the last 18 years.

Meyer brought a direct, engineer’s style to the interview. He drew many comparisons between the problems Sitka and Homer faced in trying to close their budget gaps. He admitted that he was not one for the limelight.

“The main focus of the public manager isn’t to provide a vision for the community. I hope you’re not expecting that would be one of the prerequisites of the new city administrator that I would bring with me. The main focus of a public manager is to educate and inform, and to look at the problems on the table, do what engineers do a lot, define what the alternatives are, the different ways of solving that particular problem, getting the facts on the table for everyone to discuss in a rational way, and expect that decisions will be made if people are made aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each one of them.”

Meyer said his weakness was difficulty saying no which, he was discovering in Homer, he was having to say more often. Although he’d been following the last few assembly meetings, he didn’t pretend to have a deep enough understanding of Sitka’s fiscal situation to offer a remedy, except to say that it was similar to Homer’s.

A veteran of long public service, Meyer suggested that there was a reason for his success so far.

“I will tell you that throughout my career, people who have worked for me tell me that I’m the best boss they ever had. I don’t take the approach that people work for me. I think for the most part people in city government or in the private sector do want to do a good job. Work should be hard. Work should be challenging. But we should also be getting satisfaction from our jobs. In my experience I’ve gotten more satisfaction out of my job when myself and the people who work for me are successful at what they do.”

After three hours questioning the candidates, the assembly did not take any immediate action to narrow down the pool further. Both assembly members Aaron Swanson and Aaron Bean were interested in moving ahead with two candidates. Bob Potrzuski, Tristan Guevin, Kevin Knox, and Mayor Hunter were willing to meet with two of the candidates in face-to-face interviews, but they were more ambivalent about whether the search was really over. Guevin said that he was reluctant to arrive at this stage with only three candidates.

Kevin Knox elaborated on that idea.

“The upcoming administrator is going to have some significant challenges obviously in the next year, two, and three years out. It’s not an easy position to fill. I agree with Tristan that all three of those candidates have qualities that I’m very interested in. Nobody filled every category that I’ve been thinking about.”

Mayor Hunter said simply, “I’d like to sleep on it.” Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz was absent due to a medical emergency.

The assembly next meets on Tuesday, March 28, and will discuss the administrator hire again then. Human resources director Mark Danielson reminded the assembly that often there is “never a perfect candidate.” He reminded them that — if necessary — they could hire a recruitment firm to find more candidates.

Current administrator Mark Gorman is set to resign on June 15.