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City manager candidates make pitch to the public

Posted: January 26, 2012 - 1:09am

The two finalists for Juneau’s city manager slot pitched their ideas to the public Wednesday night as part of the hiring process.

Candidates Kim Kiefer and Norman “Buddy” Custard answered two prepared questions in a short presentation, followed by questions from the public.

The two questions were “What is your vision to improve and expand relationship between public and city government?” and “What role should the city manager have in this?”

“My view of the city manager is, it’s basically a CEO of an organization that’s made up of all sorts of service groups,” said Kiefer, the current deputy manager of the City and Borough of Juneau, listing the different service departments. “My job as city manager is to have an umbrella over that so we have some form of understanding. Everybody has pieces of that they will do a little bit differently. We’ve got to have that umbrella of understanding of what you can expect from any CBJ employee. Wherever you go you should have the same expectation of how you would be treated.”

She said processes and turn-around time on requests should also have known expectations.

Kiefer said it’s important for the city manager to be involved in all the pieces, but also realize that person isn’t the only one — that each employee needs to have a voice and give input as well.

Kiefer said a good way to improve communication and relations between the city and the public would be to expand upon a program Mayor Bruce Botelho started this year called the Citizens’ Academy. The academy features one department per night where citizens can come and learn what that department’s role is, how it works and so forth.

Kiefer said it doesn’t have the attendance they’d like, but maybe if they invited high school and middle school classes to come for their local government lessons and other groups it would have a broader impact. Kiefer said if the public has a better understanding of what’s going on and how things work, they are better equipped to ask questions.

“I think that kind of communication is really important,” she said.

Kiefer said some department leaders are already involved in civic and public groups, and she’d like to see all of them participate in some way.

“I think we need to make a point of that and really get out,” she said. “And for me, if selected as city manager, I need to get out. What’s the vision for Juneau School District, Chamber of Commerce, JEDC? Are we all going in the same direction? They’re all part of the public. Are we all, as a public, do we have that shared vision? There’s pieces that are shared, there are pieces that aren’t — but there is a middle section there.”

Kiefer said the city also needs to improve its website, look into how to properly utilize Facebook and conduct neighborhood meetings just to get feedback.

“We’re really good at doing meetings when there’s a project coming up,” she said. “We have to have a meeting just to ask, ‘tell us what you think.’ What are we doing wrong, what can we improve on? We’re so driven on topic we sometimes forget to ask just the big question.”

Custard, who has served with the U.S. Coast Guard for 30 years, said being a public servant — like with the Coast Guard or a city office — involves a lot of relationships.

“People are our most important resources,” Custard said. “People that drive innovation, relationships. Everything is done by relationships. It’s not about a hierarchical chain of command. Its about who you know and its about trust and confidence.”

He said it’s important for the city to have a strong communications relationship with the public because government can’t solve everything — and it shouldn’t.

“Find out what are the citizens’ desires, what are their needs, what are their requirements, and then balancing that with the budget,” Custard said. “Without that partnership we will not get it done.”

He said the city is the recipient of public trust.

“Part of understanding leadership and vision is full transparency,” he said.

Custard relayed a story about how he worked with the people of Nome to get fuel to the city — and said it was the citizens who took on the largest role of solving the problem.

Both were asked how they’d handle the $7.8 million deficit — and what they’d cut. Custard said he couldn’t give feedback on what to cut without seeing the public survey results.

“Also important to reach out to economic counsel and talk to the merchants,” he said. “We don’t want to do something that’s going to impact the commerce we already have.”

Kiefer said she’d rely heavily on the administration team, getting feedback from every department individually about what could be done to tighten the budget — and then get everyone together to see what can be shared so service cuts aren’t as deep. She said the city also should have a longer-term vision than two years. Not necessarily creating a budget that goes out past two years, but creating a comprehensive list of things each department wants to do over the next three to five years so that money spent isn’t wasted or duplicated.

Kiefer was also asked more personal questions — like how long she intends to stay in the job if picked and if she thought being current deputy manager gave her the advantage.

Kiefer said her tenure would largely depend upon the Assembly and if it was happy with her work. Aside from that, she would expect to stay in the position for three to five years, and if it’s working she’d re-evaluate.

“I want to be in this position as long as I’m feeling I am doing the best I can for the community,” she said. “I’m not one to make a commitment and not follow through on it. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Kiefer said when it’s reached the point where she’s not giving the community all she could, she will step down.

Kiefer said she doesn’t believe she has the advantage because the Assembly wants process in selection — something she likes because she said she didn’t want to just be “handed” the job.

Both also were asked about their biggest upcoming challenges if selected.

Kiefer said her biggest challenge will be the learning curve. She said that as current deputy manager people are likely to expect her to know it all on day one. Kiefer admits she doesn’t know it all and will have quite a bit to learn on top of the pieces she already has a handle on. The other part will be learning to work with the Assembly.

“All of them have had nine years of Rod Swope,” she said.

Custard said his challenge would be getting to know everyone and making connections between city staff and the public.

The Assembly is expected to meet at noon on Saturday in Assembly Chambers in executive session to make a selection.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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