The Sitka Assembly on Thursday (9-12-19) interviewed the first of two finalists vying for the city’s top management position. John Leach is an aeronautical engineer and commander in the US Coast Guard, stationed in Washington D.C. He said his connection to Sitka is a driving factor in his decision to apply, but he also said that — if hired — he won’t be able to start for another five to seven months. KCAW’s Katherine Rose reports: 

Seven assembly members, one by one, asked John Leach a smattering of questions — sussing out his management style, his thoughts on the city budget, and his plans for Sitka’s future. Their questions were revealing, not just about Leach’s perspective, but about the assembly’s own priorities and concerns, like how to staff city hall, which is currently down six department heads. 

Member Steven Eisenbeisz asked Leach how he would approach the problem. 
“I know the right questions to ask. I know how to post the jobs and look for qualified people in the government realm,” Leach said. “I would have to take some time to learn how HR works here and how you search for qualified applicants.”

“And you’re aware the HR director is one of the positions we’re looking for?” Eisenbeisz asked. Leach said he was.

And Eisenbeisz also asked him about what improves morale within an organization.

“Building morale takes inclusion. It’s not the forced fun, it’s not the barbecues you’re going to have and make everybody go to it. It’s letting everybody understand that their input is valuable and incorporated,” he said. “Making them part of the team. Empowering them. What destroys morale? Micromanagement- not letting people do their job because some of them take a lot of passion in what they do.”  

Other assembly members were interested in Leach’s take on the city budget. Leach said he is in charge of distributing $354,000,000 budget within the Coast Guard, but he’s no stranger to working with less than they need.  

“The Coast Guard has had a flat line budget for probably eight years or so, and we’re still trying to keep our aircraft flying. And keeping our aircraft flying sometimes requires more money. Some of the aircraft are getting old, which means parts are getting more expensive – we’re replacing parts more often. So we’re creating a delta more and more every day. Last year’s delta was $86 million short of where we needed to be,” he said. “So I’m used to working with limited resources and competing demands.” 

Leach said that in his department, they have a special way they prep for windfalls or washouts to the budget. 

“We do budget drills. We say if the government decides to cut ten percent from our budget this year- what are you not going to do? Or they say, if you get ten percent more this year, what are you going to invest in,” he said. “We run those drills to help us be ready for what could come down the road. And I think that’s something we could incorporate here as well.” 

Other questions circled Leach’s lack of municipal administrative experience. Leach said while he didn’t have any experience as a city administrator, his work as a top level aeronautical engineer manager in D.C. would inform him as he learned the new job. 

“I’ve got a pretty big responsibility in the Coast Guard now. I’m the aeronautical engineer of the other aeronautical engineers,” he said. “I’m responsible for keeping aircraft flying, responsible for keeping people safe in those aircraft. I’m responsible for making sure the parts and the workforce are there, the workforce is well trained.”

Leach admitted there would be a lot to learn on the job, that could take some time. Then there’s the amount of time that could pass before he would actually assume the role of administrator. Member Valorie Nelson was concerned about Leach’s anticipated start date, somewhere between February and April. Interim administrator Dave Miller gave his notice when the assembly met on Tuesday (9-10-19). If hired, Leach’s schedule meant they would need to find a long term interim. Leach said they’d both be assuming some risk. 

“There’s risk but I will tell you that if you’re willing to take that gamble and wait for my timeline, I think you will be pleased,” he said.

After Leach’s interview, the body named Public Works Director Michael Harmon interim administrator. 

The assembly will interview the second candidate, Craig Cugini, in a special meeting on Friday, September 27, at 6 p.m. It will then decide how to proceed.

You can watch Leach’s full interview on our Facebook page.