Environmental group hires former Mayor Sally Smith

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Former Juneau Mayor Sally Smith is packing up for a months-long stint in Fairbanks, where she will try to help temper a well-known northern Alaska environmental group's radical-green image.

The Northern Alaska Environmental Center, a nonprofit based in Fairbanks, decided to tap Smith, 59, as its interim director, though she has never held a job with an environmental organization. Smith was elected mayor of Juneau in 2000 and served until 2003.

In Alaska, "environmental concern has turned into an epithet," said Smith, a former state employee and legislator who describes herself as an environmentalist willing to work with business interests.

In contrast, the center, which opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has been painted as anti-business. Some Fairbanks politicians have suffered on the campaign trail because of their affiliation with the center.

A case in point was the campaign ad attack on former state Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, during his 2000 Senate campaign, based on his membership with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Davies lost the race to current state Sen. Ralph Seekins, a Republican.

"We obviously need to sell ourselves a little better," said Sarah Campbell, vice president of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center's 15-member board. She said the center is working on a new strategic plan, and even though it won't entail major shifts in policy - like supporting ANWR drilling - the nonprofit will likely be reaching out more to the northern Alaska business community.

"There are a whole lot of different shades of green," Campbell said. "We don't want to put ourselves in opposition to the business community and all the Republicans because occasionally we are on the same side," Campbell added.

Smith didn't know about the job opportunity until she was contacted by the center's board. The job opened up after current director Arthur Hussey announced his resignation after four and a half years.

The center, with eight employees and more than 1,000 members, has been working on redefining its strategic plan and image in Fairbanks for at least three years, according to Campbell. The center is conducting a nationwide search for the permanent director post.

Smith was tapped by the center for the interim job due to her long affiliation with Fairbanks.

She lived in Fairbanks between 1969 and 1984, with a three-year stint in Juneau during that period. She represented Fairbanks as a House Democrat from 1977 to 1983 and moved to Juneau permanently in 1984, where she worked in the Division of Retirement and Benefits and the Department of Revenue.

The Northern Alaska Environmental Center's board of directors felt Smith had "so much experience and long connections to this community ... she would be a good choice for that reason," Campbell said.

Smith didn't make big waves for her environmental views in Juneau but she did play an important role in the city's purchase and designation of Amalga Meadows as a natural park. Smith was among a minority on the Juneau Assembly who opposed the majority's weakening of Juneau's mine regulations.

Smith said the new job will match her "green" interests but will also be challenging because it's her first job as an advocate.

"Sally had a lot of poise and diplomacy skills and worked with people of all perspectives. At times we had a pretty divided Assembly and she managed to bring us together," said Assembly member Mark Wheeler.

Smith has a 16-week contract with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center that begins Jan. 14 and ends May 2.

She said she is not planning to sell her Juneau home.

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