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End of an era as Botelho prepares to leave City Hall

Mayor will turn over reins to Sanford on Monday

Posted: October 14, 2012 - 12:10am
Mayor Bruce Botelho speaks about his experiences of his four terms as mayor of Juneau. Botelho will pass the baton to Mayor-elect Merrill Sanford during Monday's Assembly meeting.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Mayor Bruce Botelho speaks about his experiences of his four terms as mayor of Juneau. Botelho will pass the baton to Mayor-elect Merrill Sanford during Monday's Assembly meeting.

As of Sunday, outgoing Mayor Bruce Botelho is just a day away from completing his fourth three-year term as mayor. He is the longest-serving mayor in Juneau’s history, either before or after incorporation as the City and Borough of Juneau in 1970.

Characteristically, though, reflecting back on his time in office on Friday, Botelho spoke modestly.

“You deal with the crises that come, the decisions that need to be made, and you try to do it with eight other people,” said Botelho. “You’re part of an ensemble, really. We’re at times not a team, but we’re definitely the Assembly.”

Botelho described the work he, the CBJ Assembly and city staff have done over the years on a range of issues as “problem-solving.”

Botelho took office as mayor in 1988 and served a single term before joining the administration of then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel in the early 1990s. After a stint as attorney general, Botelho returned to city politics and was elected mayor again in 2003. He has held the office since then.

In 12 years as mayor, Botelho has confronted some serious issues. Some of them, he said, worked out more or less the way he hoped. Others, he freely admitted, were not resolved as successfully.

“One of my big pushes in the 2004-2005 timeframe was the idea that we, as a city, should undertake promotion of a new State Capitol Building in Juneau on Telephone Hill,” Botelho said. A commission was organized, with an international competition to decide on the building’s design and a panel of prominent Alaskan architects and engineers to act as a jury.

“I think there was a lot of excitement, particularly as the process narrowed down,” Botelho recounted. “That excitement existed until the panel unveiled the final four entries.”

Juneau residents, Alaskans outside the capital city and state legislators alike were nonplussed (http://bit.ly/SQVRLL). Looking back on the finalists’ submissions Friday, Botelho described them as “radical.”

“They were truly exceptional buildings, but ones that in no way reflected what I think Alaskans saw as what a Capitol should look like,” said Botelho. “It became quite clear that while Alaskans may not have been able to articulate what their State Capitol should look like … they know it when they see it, and what they saw wasn’t anything that looked like a State Capitol.”

Then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, whom Botelho described as having been “lukewarm” to the project from the start, put the final nail in the coffin.

“The moment he saw the finalists, he was out of there. And frankly, all the wind was out of the sails,” Botelho said.

Other issues that Botelho has tackled went better for him.

During Botelho’s first term, the issue of gay rights flared up, sparking a sharp divide in Juneau.

“The Juneau Human Rights Commission came forward and said that a group of local city employees were concerned about their status as gays or lesbians in city government, that we didn’t have any protections, and that our antidiscrimination ordinance for city government should be changed to specifically include sexual orientation,” Botelho said. “We introduced an ordinance to do so, and it created a firestorm, particularly in the religious community. One of our public hearings on the ordinance had people lined up around the entire city block trying to get in. We were at capacity.”

Despite the situation, Botelho was able to maintain control of the proceedings.

“As emotionally charged as the whole situation was, I think I brought a level of calmness to it, in basically saying, ‘Nobody’s going to cheer for one side or the other,’” said Botelho. “I gave each side an opportunity to speak for 10 minutes to make their general pitch.”

The Assembly was “divided,” but Botelho was determined to find a compromise solution.

“I wracked my brain over the course of the next couple weeks, and ultimately came up with a formulation that I ran by both sides, and it was a formulation that exists to this day and one that both sides could agree on,” Botelho said. “The decisions would be based solely on merit and without regard to any category. And it satisfied the religious right because it did not give any special recognition to sexual orientation. But I think (it) embodied the principle which the Human Rights Commission, speaking on behalf of some city employees who were truly concerned about it, felt. That was the fundamental principle.”

After spending the past nine years at what he said he has long since concluded is “a full-time job,” Botelho said he is ready to have more free time. He said he intends to devote more time to one of his favorite activities, folk dancing.

“I don’t have any big undertakings. I continue to have commitments,” said Botelho. He said will continue his work as moderator of the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a group of stakeholders working on Tongass National Forest policy issues. He will also continue to “keep a close eye” on an issue with which he was closely identified this year, the creation of a new coastal management program (http://bit.ly/SQXg4V).

But asked whether he would miss being mayor, Botelho’s response was immediate.

“Yes, of course,” Botelho said. “You come to the office every day, and you have an agenda, and then there’s what really happens. It’s exciting.”

Botelho added, “It’s been, for the most part, a very satisfying experience. There’ve been times when this is the last job on Earth … that you’d want, but those are few and far between.”

As to whether he will run for public office again, the 64-year-old mayor said he has “no plans” to do so.

Botelho was similarly laconic as to what advice he had for Mayor-elect Merrill Sanford, who will be sworn in to succeed him on Monday (http://bit.ly/SXXKbx).

“Merrill’s been there before,” Botelho chuckled, referring to Sanford’s nine years of Assembly service. “He doesn’t need much advice from me.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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