Phillip Messina with his daughter Jessie Messina in Portland. Messina was the Assembly’s choice for interim city administrator for the summer, as they search for a permanent hire. (Selfie courtesy of Phil Messina)

Phillip Messina is Sitka’s interim administrator, chosen by the Assembly to manage city affairs for the summer as they search for Mark Gorman’s permanent replacement. Messina is semi-retired, with nearly three decades of municipal management experience in the Pacific Northwest. His longest post was for ten years as the City Manager for Central Point, Oregon, population 17,000 – though it was 12,000 when he began.

Messina’s name was put before the Sitka Assembly by The Prothman Company, a firm hired in April to recruit a permanent administrator. He expects to hold the position into September, and spoke with KCAW about his first impressions of Sitka, goals as interim, and management style.

Downloadable audio.

Messina is available by appointment on the third floor of City Hall. You can reach him at 

Interview Highlights

On the most striking part of Sitka

I don’t know a lot of cities our size that have not just one, but two hydroelectric dams. That is different. Five marinas and harbors, I think? So just the sheer number of services that the city is involved in is impressive. I’m struck by the passion people have for this community, whether they’re just volunteers on the Assembly or they’re short-term or long-term employees. People I meet really love Sitka and they really care about this place.

On the role of interim administrator

Like I told the Assembly, it’s really about keeping a steady hand on the tiller while they go through the process of bringing on their next administrator. I am interim, but I am the administrator. I have been given that authority from the Assembly, so as things come up people come to me for the approvals, the denials, etc. So what do I hope to accomplish? What do they say in truck driving, “Always keep the shiny side up?” So hopefully there won’t be any issues. There’s some things I’ll be looking at internally – just some process items that folks may never see, but that I think may help streamline and move something things along a little quicker.

On Sitka’s 10-year capital plans. Are they too aggressive?

Mechanical systems wear out and break down. You have to be ready to fix them. I know there were maintenance issues at the Green Lake Dam. If we ever needed to replace it or the Blue Lake Dam, the Assembly heard the number is in the neighborhood of $150 to 160 million. Those are huge investments for a community this size. You asked me: Are they too aggressive? The challenge will be to determine in the short term and in the five/ten year time frame: What are we going to fix? What are we going to be able to fix and maintain? And what are we going to be able to afford to do? And that’s something the Assembly, the department heads and city staff, and the community are going to have to look at every year. It has to be looked at every year.

On balancing the cost of living, while maintaining critical infrastructure

I believe Sitka’s utility rates are somewhere in the middle of a lot of the other cities in Southeast. Somewhere down the road, someone has to be pay those bills. It’s incumbent on us to do everything we can to make those rates affordable and make this place attractive for folks that want to come here – and bring jobs, whether that’s fish processing or new hotels. Part of what we [in local government] do is to make sure you can drive on the roads, have quality drinking water, have quality schools, and keep an eye on the ball of economic development. What do they say, “A rising tide floats all boats?” So that’s part of it.

On the legal process for a potential sale of Sitka Community Hospital. Will it require public vote?

I have the best answer for you: I don’t know, and I couldn’t tell you. It’s not an area I’ve spent a whole lot of time getting into yet. There’s three public meetings coming up in mid-July. It’s going to be a difficult decision either way. We’ll see where it plays out.

Sitka Community Hospital will present their plan for sustainability to the Sitka Assembly on Thursday, July 13th. The Sitka Assembly will also host  a town hall meeting on the future of healthcare on Monday, July 17th at 6 p.m. and a special meeting to discuss both hospitals, as well as SEARHC’s proposal for merger, on Tuesday, July 18th at 6 p.m. Raven Radio will broadcast all three meetings live from Harrigan Centennial Hall.

On his opinion of tiny homes and Sitka’s shortage of affordable housing

I had a discussion with Michael Scarcelli, our planning director, who said one of the things they’ve talked about is a tiny house display. “Let’s get a couple. Let’s put some out. Let’s let people see what these are about.” I think they’re necessary. I live in the Seattle area where real estate is absolutely crazy. It’s as bad as California or Silicon Valley. If there are people for whom that’s their gateway to home ownership, we should be looking at that and find a way to make it happen.

On how he’ll handle the learning curve of managing an electric utility and a harbors system

First part of the learning curve is to know you’ve got experienced people running both of those departments. I have a lot of faith in [Utility Director] Bryan Bertacchi-  his background, his experience, his ability to run that organization and the people that work for him. Harbors, [Harbor Master] Stan Eliason is doing a great job. He has a board to work with. Part of being a city administrator is to hire good people to run those programs. I’m not a micromanager. When I’m in a hiring mode, I make sure I hire the best and turn them loose to do their job.