The administrator’s office is being held in the interim by Fire Chief Dave Miller as the Sitka Assembly forges ahead with finding someone to fill the seat permanently (KCAW File Photo)

The Sitka Assembly has pared its list of administrator candidates down again, this time from seven to two. John Leach and Craig Cugini are moving forward to the final round, although there wasn’t full consensus around either candidate.

One interview after another, seven candidates’ pixelated faces were splashed across projector screens. Via teleconference, they each told the Sitka Assembly their aspirations: To be chosen for the city’s top job, city administrator. The job was left vacant after Keith Brady was dismissed by the assembly in June.

In two special meetings the assembly asked questions of  candidates over the internet, and sometimes struggled with garbled answers and frozen faces — the result of a poor connection. But technological challenges aside, when their last interview concluded Tuesday (9/3/19), the assembly forged on to trim the list down yet again. 

“Well, now we are about to do what we set out to do,” said Mayor Gary Paxton, getting the conversation started. He suggested selecting the final two or three candidates and inviting them to interview in person, but some assembly members wanted to take it a bit slower.

“I’d like to see us narrow it down a little bit, do Skype interviews where we can formulate questions that we kind of go a little deeper,” said assembly member Kevin Mosher.

As they considered whether they were choosing applicants for another round or the final round, some assembly members expanded on what they were looking for in a candidate. Member Valorie Nelson said she was interested in two or three candidates, and she said “honesty” was her top priority. 

“When I’ve been told untruths by staff, I want an administrator that’s going to hold them accountable. I don’t think that we have had that in the past,” she said. “I’m not going to mention names I didn’t when we terminated the previous administrator, but that’s one of the things I’m looking for is honesty.”

Member Aaron Bean said he was looking for someone he said would “call a duck a duck” and grapple with the city’s budget.

“Someone who kind of recognizes what has already been identified by an applicant as a crisis, and start calling it that. And stop with the spending, maybe entertain a debt ceiling,” he said.

“For the public record, I don’t think we’re in crisis. Do we have some significant challenges? You bet we do,” said Paxton, in response to Bean. “I’m looking for a person who has the critical skills, the organizational skills to come in and empower staff and hold them to account. And it’s not an easy process.”

The group discussed each candidate’s application behind closed doors with the exception of former Sitka Mayor Marko Dapcevich, who, according to city staff, elected to have his application considered in public. The assembly voted against advancing Dapcevich and former Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt to the next round, on 4-3 votes, with Nelson, Bean, and assembly member Richard Wein voting in favor of both candidates. 

The body also passed on Cordova city manager Alan Lanning who’d received a unanimous vote to advance on to the initial round of interviews. Assembly member Kevin Knox made a motion to advance Lanning’s application, but no one seconded it and it failed due to inaction. 

Two candidates, John Leach and Craig Cugini received enough votes to advance to the next round. Both come from a military background: Leach is a commander with the U.S. Coast Guard whose family lives in Sitka, although with his current job he’s stationed in Washington DC. And Cugini works for the U.S. Army at Fort Greely.

Member Steven Eisenbeisz didn’t vote to move forward with any candidate.

“I didn’t feel that any of these were necessarily the fit we were looking for. A lot of this goes back to our termination of the previous administrator,” said Eisenbeisz. He said according to the city’s charter, an administrator should be appointed “solely on the basis of his executive and administrative qualities.”

“That was one of the reasonings we used to remove him from his seat,” Eisenbeisz continued. “So going forward I feel it is my duty as an assembly member to appoint someone based on the executive and administrative qualifications.”

And another question remained: Would this be a final or semi-final round of interviews? And would those interviews happen via the internet or in person?

“I personally would rather do this as a semi-final and a final round, have the opportunity to ask more detailed questions about their personal resumes via Skype or other ways,” said member Kevin Knox. “If we do feel like they are candidates we can, again move forward with, then we go down that road of having them here in person.

“It’s vastly premature to fly someone here without digging into some of the more personal, in-depth harder questions that are going to be asked in the next round,” said Eisenbeisz.

“Well, I mean, we’ve narrowed this down to two people, and Steve you didn’t vote for any of them, so no offense on that,” responded Bean.

Bean made the motion to offer the two candidates final interviews in person next week. That passed 5-2 with Knox and Eisenbeisz opposed. Dates for the interviews have not been announced.