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New Assembly talks focus, future direction at retreat

Saturday discussion just the start of a deeper conversation

Posted: October 27, 2012 - 10:15pm  |  Updated: October 28, 2012 - 12:13am

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly spent much of Saturday in the Assembly Chambers, working with city staff and discussing amongst themselves how the Assembly should approach issues facing the city in the coming year.

The portion of the retreat dealing with goals and action items, something that the Assembly sets after the election every year to map out the city’s short- and long-term policy direction, was facilitated by Scott Miller, public policy and planning consultant with the McDowell Group.

Miller told assemblymembers that his role at the retreat was mainly to “direct traffic.”

“My goals are to help you be creative, to help you reach clarity and to help you reach consensus,” Miller said.

As the assemblymembers prepared to go over the five overall goals set by the 2011-12 Assembly one year ago, starting with, “Preserve and improve local quality of life,” Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker made clear he did not think much of how they were written.

“That’s a nice aspirational thing to say. Nobody’s opposed to improving quality of life,” Wanamaker said of the first old goal. “We all have different views about what that means.”

Wanamaker argued, “We need to get going on … meaningful action we can take that will help solve some of the socioeconomic ills of our community.”

Assemblymember Karen Crane said she had written down a few of her top priorities for the retreat and she thought others had as well.

“It might be helpful if we heard what some of those things were,” Crane suggested.

Miller eventually assented to that approach.

“I’m kind of in favor of let’s get into the nitty-gritty of it,” Miller said.

Wanamaker, going first, immediately named housing as a priority, a subject quickly seconded by many other Assemblymembers.

“Convene the Committee of the Whole in a workshop session and listen to what needs to be done by the City and Borough of Juneau from the financial institutions, the builders of the community and the major property owners of the community, find out what needs to be done so that they can provide housing,” Wanamaker suggested, saying it would be a “learning opportunity” for the Assembly.

Assemblymember Johan Dybdahl said the Assembly should promote Juneau’s economic growth.

Assemblymember Carlton Smith highlighted an action item from the previous Assembly: “Develop CBJ financial transition plan for the potential future decline of state and federal assistance.” He also said Juneau should work toward building the capacity of its electrical grid, an issue that came up at the Southeast Conference annual meeting he attended in Craig last month (http://bit.ly/TN0vqD).

Crane mentioned a transportation plan and commitment to another old action item, “Support new state, library, archives, and museum (SLAM),” as her priorities, alongside housing.

“Start addressing the inebriate problem,” Mayor Merrill Sanford offered, simply, as his priority.

Deputy Mayor Mary Becker said she wants to see the Alaska State Capitol complex expanded and argued that Juneau needs to promote itself as a regional and state leader in order to keep its capital city status.

“We have to be good neighbors,” said Becker. “And it’s not just Southeast (Alaska), in a way. We have to show the state, too, that we’re down here working for the whole state as the capital.”

Assemblymember Loren Jones brought up two of the old action items regarding solid waste and sewage disposal, as well as civic participation and voter turnout.

“If we can get 50 percent of our registered voters to vote instead of 30, we’d have a better idea of whether we’re on the right track or not,” Jones contended.

Assemblymember Jerry Nankervis identified increasing Juneau’s water supply as an issue he wants to pursue.

Assemblymember Jesse Kiehl said Juneau should continue to push for a return to the defined-benefit system for state employees, which Becker echoed, during the upcoming legislative session.

After the priorities were outlined, Miller led the Assemblymembers through them again, starting with housing.

“Having just been on the Assembly two years, this is an area that’s real frustrating for me,” Crane said. “And I started out on the Affordable Housing Committee, and someone would say, ‘Well, let’s do such-and-such,’ and another person would say, ‘Well, we already did that. It didn’t work.’ And I’ve heard that a lot when it comes to affordable housing.”

Nankervis said he feels the key players on housing should be “doing something rather than just talking about it.”

As each assemblymember offered his or her thoughts, Miller wrote down a generalized list of the suggestions on a large pad of paper. He said at the end of the work session that he would type everything up and send copies to the assemblymembers and city staff.

The discussion on how to grow the economy drew a wide array of suggestions.

“The idea is if you’re going to increase the economy and you only have a certain amount of expertise or staff time, do you look at one area to the exclusion of another?” Jones asked. “Do you try to do it all?”

Sanford responded that he expects each assemblymember to be committed to helping attract businesses of all sizes.

“We need to be paying attention to every single job, every single job in our community and our region especially,” Sanford declared.

Jones suggested that the city’s economic plan, which assemblymembers agreed should be coordinated with CBJ staff and the Juneau Economic Development Council, should look closely at how to make the best use of limited resources.

“It just seems to be that there’s a lot of opportunity out there,” said Jones. “How do we focus that opportunity a little bit?”

The topic of financial transition, and preparing for the possibility of some future decline in state revenue, was perhaps the thorniest at the day-long retreat.

Smith spoke about the possibility of partnering independent consultants with city administrators to “do a comprehensive review of all CBJ operations, look for those efficiencies, create opportunities that may be there for consolidation and identify where we can preserve.”

“We want to be able to do more with less, because we’re going to have less, from the state and from the feds,” Smith said.

That remark drew a reaction from City Manager Kim Kiefer, who participated in the discussion along with Deputy City Manager Rob Steedle and City Attorney John Hartle.

Kiefer said the CBJ’s current organization is “not sustainable,” citing the deep cuts to staffing and new employee training since the height of the economic downturn nearly four years ago.

“I have to say something about doing more with less,” Kiefer said. “We’ve been doing something more with less since 2009, and we can’t do any more with what we have now. We have got to do less with what we have and do it well instead of doing a bunch of bad things. … We started in 2009 thinking that we were in this for two years or so, and we made reductions then, and they’re not sustainable now.”

After Kiefer’s response, Smith said he did not disagree with what she said, but still favors a review.

“This is the appropriate time for us to take a look at ourselves,” said Smith. “That’s all.”

Jones, a former internal auditor for the state, warned his fellow Assemblymembers that audits do not always come back with answers that policymakers like.

“I would caution us that if we’re going to do that, we be prepared to deal with the consequences,” said Jones.

Discussing what will happen to the city in a worst-case economic situation is not constructive, Crane contended.

“I think it’s a waste of time to plan for doomsday,” Crane said. She added, “We put ourselves in the best position possible by being as reasonable as we can now and not living outside of our means.”

Discussion on the transportation plan mentioned by Crane, the inebriate problem Sanford brought up, the capital issue identified by Becker, solid waste management noted by Jones, and the cost of energy Smith cited was relatively limited. That brevity was least partly due to limited time, as Miller worked to keep the discussion moving along and the time creeped closer to 4 p.m.

“This might be a good time for me to admit abject failure on getting through this agenda,” said Miller to laughter, as it became clear that there would not be enough time to get through everything Saturday.

Sanford said after the retreat that he expects the Assemblymembers will have to continue the discussion at a later date.

“Scott’s going to get us a little report back … and then we’ll be able to look at those key items there … and see whether or not we have to ask Scott to come back and help us a little bit more, or if we can work on them ourselves through staff,” Sanford said. “And I think we got to some of the bigger issues, so I think we’ll be able to go through staff, but we’ll see.”

Both Sanford and Kiefer said they found the work session to be helpful.

“I think it’s always really good when we all get together and look at where we want to go,” said Kiefer. “I have to have a clear understanding of where the Assembly wants to go so I can do everything I can to assist them to meet their goals.”

Some concrete ideas offered at the retreat are likely to receive action. Sanford mentioned Wanamaker’s suggestion of a housing “workshop” as an example, saying it could happen within the next few months.

Assemblymembers were also briefed by staff at the retreat as to what is going on with various departments and agencies.

As Finance Director Bob Bartholomew presented an overview of the city’s finances, Sanford, one of only three members of the Assembly this year with more than one term of experience (http://bit.ly/PbMru8), emphasized the Assembly’s obligation to draft and approve a budget, in consultation with staff.

“It’s important for us, as the policymakers, to stay involved with this and pay attention,” Sanford said.

That responsibility was reiterated by Engineering Director Rorie Watt, discussing the recent passage of two ballot propositions that will provide city projects with well over $50 million in funding (http://bit.ly/UROgik).

“The good news is, their projects got funded,” said Watt. “The bad news is, they can’t all go on day one.”

Watt told the assemblymembers, “There will be some decisions that you have to make, and suffice it to say, you’re probably not going to be able to make everyone happy with their first choice on when they get their money, and some projects will have to wait a little bit.”

Other staff members who were present at the retreat and addressed the assemblymembers included City Clerk Laurie Sica, Community Development Director Hal Hart, Human Resources and Risk Management Director Mila Cosgrove, Public Works Director Kirk Duncan, Airport Manager Jeannie Johnson and Port Engineer Gary Gillette.

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

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