PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough Assembly met for a special meeting on Thursday to review answers submitted by the five finalist manager candidates.
The Mat-Su Borough enlisted the help of Texas municipal advising firm Baker Tilly to narrow down applications and select a list of finalists which were then pared down by the assembly on Aug. 25. The application process for the new Borough Manager will remain open until Sept. 21. After hearing video responses to three questions from Janette Bower, Gene Green, Thomas Hutka, Scott Meszaros and Randy Robertson, the assembly picked three current finalists for the job.
“I move to direct Baker Tilly to allow supplemental applications up until Sept. 21 and for the record, it’s the intent of the Assembly to move Janette Bower, Thomas Hutka and Randy Robertson forward in the process as finalists,” said Assemblyman Dan Mayfield.
Prior to the meeting, two members of the public offered comments on the matter. Former Borough Manager John Moosey has moved on to be the city of Palmer’s Manager and George Hays has taken over as interim Borough Manager until a new manager is selected later this year.
“It appears that the candidates have not had experience with a community of the complexity of the Mat-Su Borough in terms of the size of the budget and the number of full staff they have. I’m particularly concerned that they do not have any knowledge of the complexity of our borough,” said Patti Fisher. “It is imperative to me the knowledge of the borough and Alaska is critical for a candidate. It is not possible for an individual from a radically different environment to understand what it is to live here and deal with these issues.”
Of the five managerial candidates, four had experience working in local municipal governments around Alaska. Bower had served as Palmer Clerk from 2003 to 2006 and as Bethel Clerk prior to that. Green received a degree in Organizational Administration from Alaska Pacific University and worked for the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility for a decade before serving as assistant city manager and administration director of Unalaska from 1995-1998. Scott Meszaros has served as the Manager of Seward since last spring and Randy Robertson served as Cordova’s Manager from 2013-2016.
“I was pleased with your selections for your finalists,” said Mayor Vern Halter. “I think they are great candidates. I’m looking forward to meeting them at some point in time and we’ll be doing that in the next several weeks.”
Each of the five finalists that had not withdrawn their name from contention offered video responses to three questions.
What strategies to you use to keep your pulse on issues important to the borough and the communities it serves and what strategies would you use to keep the assembly informed and provide specific examples was the first question. The second question was “if you were confronted with a significant budget deficit i.e. 20 percent of general fund on your arrival at the borough what would your first steps be to address the situation,” and the third question asked candidates if there are programs, policies or actions of this organization that you have heard of with which you have concerns or differences, if so what is your recommendation to address this.
Janette Bower was the only candidate that was selected as a finalist who had previously lived and worked in the Mat-Su Borough. Bower attended from Griffin Business College in 1987 and continued education as a municipal employee, earning certifications in Master Municipal Clerk and at the Institute of City Mangers. Bower currently serves as the city administrator in Wadena, Minnesota where she has worked since the spring of 2018. Bower said that her method of keeping assembly members informed was to provide weekly reports, meet with members of each district and email back and forth, specifically noting that she made sure to comply with open meetings laws in doing so. As for a 20 percent general fund deficit, Bower said that she would meet with the financial director and department directors to discuss changes and specifically mentioned the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The first thing I would do is gather all of the information, gather all of the data, analyze it and to make a determination of what should happen next,” said Bower.
Nearly every candidate brought up the tabled discussion on a strong mayor form of government during their response to the third question and many also discussed police powers.
“I actually do agree that there is a definite need in the Mat-Su Borough for additional police in some form. My only concern about that is how is that going to be paid for and I would assume that would be through taxes and that is a concern because also it’s a vote, so that would probably be my only concern at this moment in time that i know of right now. The Mackenzie project, I know that’s an ongoing project and I do need to learn where the funding is for that so, just some big expenses that I would say I would have concerns about and the mechanism to pay for these big projects,” said Bower.
Thomas Hutka has been employed as the Public Works Director for Broward County in Florida since 2009 and has experience working in local governments in Indianapolis, Cleveland, and New York as well as serving as the City Manager in Port Huron, Michigan. Hutka received degrees from Florida State University, Princeton University and Harvard University. Asked how he could keep the assembly informed of the issues, Hutka offered a variety of solutions. Hutka said that he would meet with members of the assembly and public including business and agencies and that he was in favor of holding town hall meetings to discuss issues.
“I have to admit I have a bit of a quirk. I daresay most people in government at all levels of government try to stay away from ‘trouble makers,’ people who come to the assembly meetings and complain and get loud and tell you everything they think is wrong. I actually go out of my way to talk to those people to embrace and find out what their issues are. Anybody who has a strong enough interest in the community to come down to meetings, to come to different projects and let us know their opinions deserves to be talked about,” said Hutka.
Hutka said that given a 20 percent decrease in the general fund, he would look at implementing cost control scheduling that he has in the past. Hutka noted the long term economic impacts of the pandemic and said that he favors long term budgeting. Hutka said that his process would begin by prioritizing services and only hiring when necessary and mentioned that public works grants will likely become available in the near future during economic uncertainty. When asked about problems with programs, Hutka did not make any statements on exactly where he stood on the issue of a strong mayor, but loosely described a Socrates quote about only being intelligent when you realize you know nothing.
“I know for somebody coming into the community from the outside, there’s a very steep learning curve. I’ve always made it a practice being a new person in the situation to spend at least the first month or two talking a lot less,” said Hutka. “Talking less and listening more and finding out all of the community concerns certainly, the policies established by the mayor and assembly and just getting ahead of that learning curve as much as possible.”
Randy Robertson is currently the city manager for Aberdeen Maryland and touted his leadership history in the United States Army. Robertson is a retired officer and formerly served as a Brigade Chief of Staff and Chief of Staff of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico from 2005-2006. Robertson earned a Masters in Strategic Planning from the U.S. Army War College and carries a long list of certificates. Robertson studied at the FEMA Emergency Management Academy through Harvard, FEMA and Texas A&M, studied in a senior executive fellowship through Harvard, received a Masters in Public Administration from Western Kentucky, a Masters in Urban Planning from Johns Hopkins and advanced graduate studies from Central Michigan University and Boston University. Robertson noted his experience in the Army with officer unit reports, taking information from the department heads and translating that to the assembly. Robertson also touted his social media savvy with over 12,000 followers as a method of distributing information. Robertson said that given a 20 percent general fund shortfall, he would look at past audits.
“From doing this for many years, this kind of process it’s not new and it’s not unique. Federal governments, state governments, county governments, you inherit fiscal imbalances. We start to look at opportunities where not necessarily we can piecemeal cut, and if that’s your vision and your goals then certainly that’s the direction I head, but I start looking at missions that were doing that may not be the most complementary to again what your vision and your goals are. So that’s my process and it’s a very collaborative process,” said Robertson.
Robertson mentioned economic impacts of COVID-19 numerous times and In discussing policies or procedures he has interest in, Robertson discussed his past successes in Cordova in relation to the port and his experience in Tennessee with railroads.
“In I’ll use the term post covid environment, I’m not aware of any specific policies or programs that are in place at this time but I would say that any county manager, borough manager, city manager, city administrator or elected city leader will recognize that the future was rewritten starting back in February and March to a large extent of how we do things, so I believe the experiences that I could bring to Mat-Su area, to its citizens, the focus that I put on growing people could be invaluable,” said Robertson.