Empire editorial: Pierce's return gives pause to reconsider MacKinnon

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

Former Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce starts back to work Monday. This is good news for Juneau, as the office she vacated at the end of June along with City Manager Dave Palmer will once again be restored with her deep experience and institutional knowledge of the interworkings of city government.

Pierce left her job in good standing after 20 years with the city, including 11 years as deputy city manager.

The city manager's office oversees a staff of almost 600 employees and covers a mind-boggling array of responsibilities and challenges, not the least of which is serving as an interface between city operations, the Assembly and the public.

Pierce had pushed herself beyond the limit last spring when she decided to take a hiatus to "recharge her batteries." She returns to her duties with renewed vigor, confident that the administrative workload will continue to be effectively and professionally managed, but facing the uncertainty of what the future will bring in terms of who will assume the permanent position of city manager.

The loss of the city's top two managers early last summer created an enormous responsibility for someone to cover for the time it would take to find not one, but two, qualified permanent managers.

In July John MacKinnon stepped forward to take on the daunting task of managing CBJ operations and quickly proved that he was up to the challenge. He has logged many long days effectively covering the duties of the office without the help of a deputy manager.

MacKinnon was instrumental in convincing Pierce to return to work. He urged her to return because she would be a stabilizing influence if he were to leave suddenly to pursue other interests. This choice was made for the benefit of the city, not himself.

Over the years MacKinnon and Pierce have established a mutually respectful and productive working relationship. MacKinnon served for 12 years on the Assembly, including 6 1/2 years a deputy mayor. He also served for four years on the Planning Commission.

Pierce's return to the city manager's office does diffuse one concern about MacKinnon's viability as a candidate for the permanent job. The 106-day gap that would be created from the time when MacKinnon's one-year interim position would expire and the time when he would be eligible to assume the permanent position in mid-October, if he is chosen now, becomes less of an obstacle. As long as Pierce is on the job the transition will benefit whoever takes the top spot.

Although Pierce says she has no interest in being interim manager, she will provide the stability necessary to keep things on track while working with someone in the interim position for the 3 1/2-month gap in the event the Assembly allows MacKinnon to be considered. City Lands Manager Steve Gilbertson has covered the office in the past and would be an excellent choice to fill in.

MacKinnon's commitment and qualifications for the city manager position are far too great to be overlooked. While it is important that the city should seek the best possible candidate for the job, bringing someone in from outside has historically proven to be a gamble. From 1980 on, none of the former managers from outside lasted long and most were ultimately fired.

The learning curve is steep in Juneau as the position deals with the management of the capital city of Alaska with a population of 31,000 covering one of the largest land areas of any city in the United States. Juneau is one of the few cities in America that oversees an international airport, a downhill ski area, several harbors, a regional hospital and deals with the funding for education and school facilities.

The city is currently engaged in long-range planning for tourism and is about to tackle a $177 million operating budget. Starting in February the city begins negotiations on a new contract for CBJ employees.

Compounding the challenge is a green Assembly with six of the nine members serving in first terms. These pressing matters help build the case for keeping someone experienced on the job.

MacKinnon is a lifelong resident of Juneau. He is hard-working, smart, dedicated, fair, principled, decisive, knowledgeable, and extremely enthusiastic about his community and the job he has grown to enjoy. His 16 years of public service should leave no doubt about sincerity of his commitment to Juneau. Deputy Manager Pierce's confidence in MacKinnon is also a plus, and will bode well for the future if MacKinnon's status becomes permanent.

It's not surprising that those attributes might leave other competitors for the job with feelings of inadequacy. There are plenty of other reasons why outside candidates would chose to withdraw. The lengthy selection process, the high cost of living, remoteness, isolation, low compensation package, climate and the prospect of the capital moving, are just a few of the factors working against the resolve of outside prospects.

To exclude MacKinnon from consideration because of his stature in the community and legitimate qualifications is not justified or fair.

The Assembly is your voice in government. If you feel that the Assembly should reconsider John MacKinnon's candidacy for city manager, let the members know about it. Contact information for Assembly members can be found on the city's Web site: www.juneau.org/assembly/assembly.htm

Don Smith



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