Just 24 hours after the filing period opened to run for Sitka Assembly and School Board, Gary Paxton filed for reelection as Sitka’s mayor on Tuesday (7-21-20). While his long-term agenda includes finishing some big projects; in the near term, he’s been working to roll back some remarks he made at a recent assembly meeting which many considered racist.
Gary Paxton is wrapping up his two year term as Sitka’s mayor. In those two years, a lot has happened: The city finalized its sale of Sitka Community Hospital to SEARHC, went through a dramatic public administrator firing, saw major budget cuts from the state, and now is in the throes of a pandemic.
An octogenarian, you’d think Paxton would be considering stepping back from public life, but he says he’s not done yet.
“In short terms, it’s unfinished business. It’s been a really turbulent year, and we’ve got a lot of stuff we’ve gotta finish up this year.”
A lifelong Sitkan and former city administrator, Paxton graduated from West Point and spent much of his younger years in the military. That influence shows up sometimes at the assembly table when he calls fellow members “troops.” When he ran for mayor two years ago, his platform was focused on “sustainable budget and accessibility.”
Looking back on his two years in office, he’s confident that he and fellow assembly members made a good decision in hiring John Leach for the city administrator post.
“John has done an incredible job under an immensely stressful time,” says Paxton. “We had enough challenges with the budget notwithstanding the COVID virus, and the state funding and the haulout issue that we’re trying to sort out.”
If he wins, one of Paxton’s top priorities is getting the marine haulout project off the ground. The assembly recently put the project on pause in the hope of winning a federal grant to fund it this fall. He is also excited about plans to develop a section of city-owned property out Halibut Point Road. And his mind is on next year’s city budget, with more uncertainty than ever. He’s hopeful, too, for federal aid to overhaul the Green Lake power station, and SEARHC’s promised hospital expansion, along with other developments that are out of the city’s control, but would be crucial to help the city address future budget shortfalls.
“With the pandemic done next year we should have a powerful tourism season that will be helpful in so many ways. We’re two years away, I think, from getting our new Coast Guard cutter. The budget and the economy of our town, they’re interrelated, is going to be the centerpiece of how we move forward.”
Paxton considers himself apolitical, and his is often the swing vote on divisive items at the assembly table. Though as serious conversations around the coronavirus and race in America come to the assembly table with lots of public input, Paxton’s comments, and his tendency to rush the meetings along, have come under heightened scrutiny.
At its last meeting, the assembly failed to pass a measure that would have strongly advised Sitkans to wear masks. Paxton was one of four assembly members who voted it down. At the same meeting, he voted in favor of moving the Alexander Baranov statue. Both items generated substantial public comment, but Paxton wanted to push the meeting ahead, saying “succinctness is next to godliness.” He’s received some criticism for cutting off public comment early. He says while his goal is to run efficient meetings, he accepts the criticism.
“People on the assembly get criticized routinely for a lot of stuff and it’s not ‘Yay, I got to be criticized.’ But that’s part of the process,” he says. “Listen to people criticize what you’re doing, weigh it out and then try to go forward as best you can.”
And criticism of Paxton sprung up again after that meeting when, during public comment on the mask order, he admonished David Sam, a Tribal elder, for moving the chair in front of the podium in order to stand while he spoke. Here’s a brief transcript of that exchange:
Gary Paxton: Put the chair back, son. Put the chair back. Thank you. This is not some type of a honky tonk deal here. Put it back! Where it belongs. Please. David Sam: I'm not going to use it I'll put it back after I speak. Gary Paxton: Okay.
I asked Paxton if he remembered the incident and how he’d like to respond to people who feel his use of the word “son” in reference to Sam was racist or problematic.
“I’ve gotten some bad feedback about that,” Paxton says. “I apologize for that, that wasn’t my intent. I misinterpreted what I thought was his gesture when he moved the chair to the side,” he says. “That made me feel really bad, because that wasn’t my intent,” he continues. “I didn’t even know I used the word son. I have no reflection of doing that, but if I did that, that was inappropriate for sure.”
After the meeting, Paxton sent an email apology to Sitka Tribe of Alaska chair Kathy Hope Erickson and General Manager Lisa Gassman. In it, he wrote that a member of the public had explained to him that “Mr. Sam’s gesture of moving the chair and standing while he spoke was a sign of respect” and apologized to Sam and the Tribe. Erickson responded to Paxton, writing that the tense times we’re living in may have played into his reaction, but “Now more than ever, we each need to be on guard not to overreact and – heaven forbid, insult or denigrate our neighbors.”
When asked what the assembly’s role is in addressing systemic racism in Sitka, Paxton says he believes that there is racism in Sitka and in America, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to “racist.”
“Call me naive or whatever, I don’t think we’re a racist town. I don’t think we’re a racist nation. Now, it’s probably easy enough for people to be inadvertently insensitive to a racial context. But, listen, respect for our fellow citizens is fundamental to why we love Sitka,” he says. “I’m hard-pressed to think of systemic racism [in Sitka] but if there is such a thing, then you need to figure out how to solve it.”
Moving forward Paxton says he’s willing to listen and, if elected, says he will continue to work in the city’s best interest.
“I try to make good decisions for Sitka as best as I can based on my experience and my knowledge of the town. I care about every bit of it, and I think I have Sitka’s best interest at heart, as best I can.”
Sitka’s municipal election is Tuesday October 6.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of transparency, David Sam sits on the board of CoastAlaska, a regional nonprofit that provides administrative, technical and editorial services to this station.