My Turn: A founding charter commissioner's view

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

My name is certainly not a household one in Juneau's civic history, but I was active in Juneau municipal elective offices in the late '60s and early '70s when some key changes in Juneau's governmental structure were made, notably, institution of the council-manager form of government by popular vote, followed by the election of a charter commission to unify the city and former Greater Juneau Borough into the single city-borough it has been for the past three decades.

I served as a city councilman, an elected borough assemblyman, an elected charter commissioner charged with framing the unified government charter, and as an elected assemblyman of the first city-borough assembly.

Despite my being in my home state of New Jersey and in retirement, I've continued to follow local government in Juneau.

The current debate over hiring a new permanent city manager is I believe of immense significance in setting a precedent for the future course of Juneau government and so prompts this very concerned word as to what the charter requires. It is of especial concern because the charter requirements governing the choice of the manager would be the major single key to the success of the new government.

The charter, in a provision adopted unanimously, contemplates a "permanent" manager who is qualified in the traditional sense in which city managers are chosen, i.e. a career professional municipal administrator - equipped for the job by 1) education as a professional municipal administrator, 2) training as a professional municipal administrator, and (not or) experience as a professional municipal administrator.

The preference is mandatory, not advisory. That intent statement is formally recorded in the minutes and, as stated, requires the governing body to give preference to a candidate with education, experience and training as a professional appointed municipal administrator.

So the charter commission was presumably well aware of the import of this provision on permanent manager qualifications. I take it to mean that if there are candidates for the post who meet the preferred requirements as a professional municipal administrator, they must be selected over a candidate who does not meet, or only partly satisfies, the requirements; that candidate would in effect be required to be excluded from consideration. Should any current governing body want a looser requirement, it should propose amending the charter to the people, and certainly cannot as a faithful exercise of its oath of office and duties under the charter undertake to consider how to circumvent or evade a provision the current body does not like. That would be in effect having the governing body declaring itself a de facto charter commission and could raise several important legal ramifications to the detriment of the municipality should it carry thorough on any such intentions and be found in the courts to have acted extralegally in appointment of a manager.

The charter provision providing for an acting manager would by its plain meaning seem to call for any acting manager to be replaced with a permanent manager in not longer than a year. Tacking on one manager after another in the case of the same existing vacancy, in a situation when the initial acting manager has completed his limit of a year, would seem contrary to the plain meaning of the provision, and it mystifies me how any legal authority to the contrary can be argued.

The commission had at least two practicing lawyers on it (Allan Engstrom and Don Craddick), and I think a review of minutes would show that it did a thorough and responsible job of crafting a charter. I believe the issue now facing the city-borough on who is qualified to be appointed manager is well-anticipated in the minutes and is really resolved by a fair and forthright application of the language of the charter.

The commission provided a strong penalty for attempting to knowingly and willfully violate the charter - automatic forfeiture of office of the offending parties (after a fair hearing), and I believe it would be obligatory on any governing body to have the courage to invoke this penalty when a violation is reasonably judged to have taken place.

For over 30 years the charter has seemed to serve pretty well in providing for true professional municipal administration. My appeal to the citizens of Juneau is to insist that the "will of the people" be observed by current governing bodies, and that proper amendment by vote of the people be sought for charter changes. The rule of law, which every citizen in a democracy must stand up for, demands nothing less.

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