Open to new experience: Assembly will move forward without most senior members

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010

When Mako Haggerty was asked where on the assembly he can turn for guidance after Tuesday, he let out a big laugh before answering.

"Like I said, Johni (Blankenship) is going to play a bigger and bigger role," Haggerty, the South Peninsula representative, said, referring to the current borough clerk.

While Blankenship is a valuable resource, one with 11 years of experience attending and working Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings, she is not an assembly member.

After Tuesday, the assembly will lose its most experienced assembly members due to the implementation of term limits. When Assembly President Pete Sprague of Soldotna, Kasilof's representative Paul Fischer and Nikiski's representative Gary Superman walk out the door, so too will nearly 50 years of combined service.

The new group has fewer than 20 years of assembly representative experience between the nine members. While Fischer has served nearly 25 years on the assembly, Gary Knopp, soon to be the body's longest-tenured member, has served a fifth of what Fischer has served.

Though the loss of experience will present challenges, assembly members say they are ready and able to move forward.

The biggest loss, many current and outgoing assembly members agree, will be institutional knowledge.

"It's always good to have experience and a strong background. It certainly helps frame questions and just allows you to see why things are happening and gives context," Sprague said.

Haggerty said he's seen assembly members' historical knowledge play an important role in many decisions.

"A lot of times situations or issues are recurring, and those guys (Sprague, Superman and Fischer) will say 'We had the same thing back in such and such and we did this and it worked because of this reason' or 'We did this and it didn't work because of this reason,'" Haggerty said.

The new body's source of institutional knowledge will shift, according to Bill Smith, Homer's representative.

"When you have a continual influx of newcomers it gives the staff and the borough employees more power because they are the ones with institutional knowledge," Smith said. "They will, more than in the past, form the opinions of the assembly."

A less experienced assembly might also struggle slightly with basics like running a smooth meeting.

"It's nothing against the people on the assembly, but the flow of meetings and the way the meeting is run in an efficient and clear manner, we might lose that," Haggerty said.

The new body will not have a former assembly president sitting on it, something that hasn't happened in Sprague's 12 years of serving. He said that could have an effect.

"Newer assembly members will certainly have to ask questions and make suggestions just on procedural matters," Sprague said. "How to address an amendment, for example. How to operate within the framework of the meeting."

That's where Blankenship could come in.

"I hope I have the answers that they'll need," the clerk said. "I will certainly be here to support them and answer their questions."

Knopp, who could be poised to take over the presidency, said he has been trying to pick Sprague's brain as much as possible so the body will run "just as smoothly as we can without losing any momentum."

Superman, who has been forced from his seat after 12 years of service, thinks it takes time for a person to grow as an assembly member.

"It takes a couple of terms to get up on step over there and to understand the mechanism of borough government," the Nikiski representative said.

Superman said he is speaking from his own experience.

"When I first went in there I was pretty green. I was a regular Joe off the street. I had the idea that I'd go in there and turn the world around, but that doesn't really happen on the assembly," Superman said. "If you have been on the assembly for awhile it's easier to persuade and to lead the assembly in certain directions, and I don't know if that's going to happen on the current assembly.

"Experience has a tendency to make people listen, and it can give some credibility to what you are saying," Superman added.

Haggerty said he's gained perspective in his first year.

"I was definitely redirected from some of my conceived ideas. We all come to the assembly with our own biases, and sometimes those biases are a liability and not an asset," Haggerty said. "Those biases are not necessarily always for the greater good, and what we had with the experience were people who could help you see things from a different perspective."

Sue McClure, of East Peninsula, has noticed personal growth in her first year on the body.

"My own confidence level is pretty high now. At the start, nobody's really sure. You are testing the waters. But you go to enough meetings and you figure it out," McClure said. "Now I understand how the process works. A big part of it is knowing who to call on for certain things. Initially I had no idea. I think I have a handle on that pretty well now."

Still, McClure is looking forward to welcoming new members.

"Sometimes a fresh group could mean productivity," McClure said. "I'm not apprehensive at all. I'm kind of excited about it."

Fischer, who has spent so many years on the assembly that he can't even remember if it's been 23, 24 or 25 years, doesn't think experience is all it's cracked up to be.

"I don't give that much credibility to experience," Fischer said. "I think you could take anybody and put them on the borough assembly and it wouldn't take two years for them to get what was going on."

Sprague, too, said there are ways to make up for lack of tenure.

"First of all, do your homework. Talk to the department heads because they really do have the background. The department heads are really well versed in the issues," Sprague said.

And really, it doesn't matter how much time the new assembly has served because its members will still be expected to do the job.

"I haven't thought about it a great deal," Smith said. "You just have to deal with whatever hand has been dealt to you."

• Andrew Waite can be reached at

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