Monday, March 17, 2008

More on City Council: An Inside Perspective

Readers of this blog who do not live in southwest Alaska may have difficulty appreciating the intensity of emotion which continues to grip this community in the wake of the firing of the City Attorney. It has become a watershed event which has galvanized people in all walks of life. It has focused people's attention on the deliberations of the City Council in a way that none of their previous stunts ever managed to do. Until this happened, most people simply weren't interested.

When a previous Council member was arrested in Anchorage while on city business for beating up his girlfriend (not his wife, she was at home) in a public parking lot, it hardly caused a ripple. Apathy about the running of city government was rampant. If 20% of the voters showed up to elect their City Council members, it was considered a good turn out. Most people just wanted to get on with their lives and did not care what the Council was up to. It did not seem to affect their lives, and was only good for a little entertainment value on the radio on Tuesday nights.

In two short months, that has changed. People are not only paying attention, they are pretty riled up about it all. Suddenly the Council is suffering some scrutiny, and the public is not laughing.

After my last post, Dutch decided that he would write a comment. As a city employee, he feels the fallout of all of this far more than I do. He has a unique perspective on the events of this year, and when his comment ran to several pages, I felt it should be a post in itself. So, herewith is his perspective.

Dear Tundra PA-

Your analysis of the continuing City Council drama is right on. It's measured, accurate, and goes to the heart of the matter.

I have attended well over 90% of the Bethel City Council meetings in the almost four years I have lived in Bethel. I began going to the Council meetings prior to taking a position as a department head within the city administration because I was curious as to what local issues the community was facing. In my view, the Council was a good place to start.

My initial reaction to the Council meetings was one of bemusement. I smiled to myself when they got themselves procedurally beleaguered in amendments to amendments to motions and were clueless as to how to proceed. It was almost like having to deal with your dog who has hopelessly wrapped his chain around a tree and can’t figure out how to unwind. I would hear about people at home who said they tuned into the radio broadcasts of the Council meetings for the entertainment value. It seemed to be rollicking good fun at times. This is not to say that Council did not do good things that were of value to the community from time to time. There were even a few important issues in which I felt the Council did their homework, asked the right questions and deliberated impressively to a just outcome. In those instances Bethel actually received wise and far reaching public policy from their elected officials which benefited the entire community instead of a targeted few.

When I became a department head within the City government I had the opportunity to closely observe the City Council's relationship with the City administration, both as a body and as individuals. The Block of Four was, for my first two years, a minority Block of Three. Two of the current Block of Four were on that Council: Vice Mayor and Blustering Bloviator. Added to this duo was an individual who I would call the Know-It-All. Know-It-All was someone who talked incessantly and always had 20/20 hindsight on all issues. He always knew how things should have been done and could not for the life of him understand why everyone else was not as insightful as he. Somehow, though, his great insight was never available at the moment decisions were being made.

Even though they did not constitute a majority block, the Block of Three made up for this by being very vocal at Council meetings. The Vice Mayor and Know-It-All seemed to be especially relentless in their efforts to embarrass the Administration publicly whenever possible. They reveled in finding wedge issues or trap doors which they would spring on the City Manager. A favorite tactic was to find a citizen who had a complaint about some City administration service and ask him to come forward and state his issue publically during People To Be Heard. Know-It-All became particularly good at this. Now there is nothing wrong with citizens bringing problems they have encountered in dealing with their City government to the attention of their elected representatives. During People to be Heard, any citizen has an opportunity to talk for up to 15 minutes without interruption to the Council. What is important to remember is that there is no guarantee that anything the citizen says is remotely true, or that they have any accurate understanding of circumstances bearing on their situation. The citizen is merely exercising his or her right to speak.

But Vice Mayor and/or Know-It-All were not satisfied with the citizen just stating his point of view in front of Council. They would then start asking questions about how the City administration failed the citizen. Often a dialog would start between the Council and the citizen. It was assumed that the City administration was solely at fault, but no one from the appropriate City department was ever called upon to respond or give input on how the administration had dealt with the citizen’s problem. Council seemed intimidated by facing an unhappy constituent and felt compelled to arrive at solutions on the spot. It seemed that the goal of Vice Mayor and Know-It-All was maximum public embarrassment of administration with minimum delay.

Not all the drama took place at Council meetings. The current Vice Mayor was at this time the Mayor. At the beginning of his term we had actually met and talked about the status quo. I urged (Vice) Mayor to forge a winning political combination with the City Manager. He and the City Manager could work together to push forward a progressive agenda of civic accomplishment. Even better, I pointed out, the City Manager is not looking for credit and (Vice) Mayor could bask alone in receiving community kudos for all his actions. Bethel would surely benefit from (Vice) Mayor and City Manager working together to get the people's work done. Additionally, I pointed out, this winning arrangement could greatly improve (Vice) Mayor's dream of higher office.

However, this was not to be. Instead the relationship between (Vice) Mayor and the City Manager underwent rapid deterioration. (Vice) Mayor pointed to various small and silly incidents as proof that the City Manager felt his own position superior to the (Vice) Mayor's. One he cited included a moment when the City Manager climbed up on the City Council dais at a break in a meeting and shook his hand to congratulate him for something. (Vice) Mayor, who happened to be sitting down, took this to mean the City Manager was talking down to him. The City Manager viewed it as going the extra mile to walk up to the (Vice) Mayor and express praise. (Vice) Mayor stopped seeing the City Manager on agenda or issue discussions. All communication to the administration was thereafter done through the City Clerk. When (Vice) Mayor needed to see the City Attorney he did so carefully because her office was located next to the City Manager's. His need to avoid the City Manager became ludicrous. At one point he actually requested the City Attorney to meet him at the Cultural Center library because of his fear that the City Manager would overhear his business with her. She met (Vice) Mayor at the library on one occasion but then declined to continue doing so. She felt it was just too bizarre. I believe this refusal was the beginning of (Vice) Mayor's motivation to terminate the City Attorney.

The people spoke decisively at the next City Council election. There were four candidates for the three open Council seats, and (Vice) Mayor, as the sitting Mayor, was not re-elected. It was like a game of musical chairs whereby the music stopped and Vice Mayor could not find a seat to plunk down in. He was no longer a City Council member and he had been the incumbent Mayor! Of course, Vice Mayor rationalized his loss as being caused by his bravely taking on unpopular issues which sullied him politically. I believe the real reason for his loss was a block of angry City employee voters who were very tired of his anti-City administration behavior.

I totally agree with your characterization of the present City Council and the Block of Four. A note on Blustering Bloviator. In my opinion, he is the one Council Member I can categorically state has never contributed an idea of any value to Council or City business. Instead, for example, he made disgraceful comments about our police department and our officers, specifically to the press, while on travel away from the City. These comments made it into Alaska newpapers and were the source of profound embarrassment to the community.

When Blustering Bloviator ventured into the world of City budget issues he made the following recommendation for a budget modification:

Create the position of Oversight Coordinator that sees to getting full production from our work force, paid for by taxes. The position should have full authority to write up slack performance or total lack of motivation for expected production. - 11 May 2007

In reading those words, I cannot help but think that Blustering Bloviator does not understand that political commissars went out with the fall of the Soviet Union. What a breathtakingly inspiring motivational idea--someone paid to rat-out our employees if they take an extra five minutes on their lunch break.

The descriptor consistently used by many about the current Mayor's recent performance is disappointment. I include myself. I voted for the Mayor with great optimism. The first year he was on Council we had a very positive give and take type relationship. He made valuable suggestions to me which benefited my approach to projects. I especially worked hard to ensure that he was in the loop as far as my department went. This changed right about the time Vice Mayor was elected back onto Council (with 216 votes) last October. The Mayor seemingly got caught up in Vice Mayor's pattern of requiring an adverse relationship with the City administration. In other words, everything the administration tells Council is assumed to be suspect, self serving, inaccurate and to be counteracted. He stopped appearing at my office to discuss issues.

This was also paralleled in his relationship with the City Manager. He seems to embrace the concept of the ends justifying the means as far as furthering his agenda and that of his supporters. It suggests he lacks the character we who voted for him thought he possessed.

Two comments about Newly Appointed Council Member (NACM). The first is that the Alaska Court System found he was in violation of Bethel Municipal Code in that he was not signed up for sewer service last summer (and still is not). He has paid the fine for that one violation. He has been further cited for 180 plus days of alleged violations since his first citation (with fines now exceeding $18,000). This violation is before the Alaska Court System. However, nothing has changed. He continues to be in non-compliance and can be cited daily. To assist NACM and hopefully gain his compliance, the City acquired a sewer tank and hauled it to his home site. All that remains is for him to hook up the tank to his sewer system and subscribe to City sewer collection service. So we now have the specter of a Council Member arguing before the Court as to why he does not need to comply with basic community sanitation standards.

My second comment pertains to the fact that I serve with NACM on a city committee which advises the City Manager on Alternative Energy issues. It is a difficult issue to conceptualize. NACM, who is another know-it-all type, finds it very difficult to formulate a cogent path forward. His patented easy hind sight (what they should have done) answers are spouted off to others around the community, but do not easily pass the scrutiny of his peers on the Committee. He has no choice but to listen and be told where he is wrong.

So we are back to the Block of Four. I have come to the conclusion that these four are, for a lack of a better term, misfits. Now this may be an antiquated term but in this instance fits very well. Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman turned respected social philosopher notes: “We all have private ails. The troublemakers are those who need public cures for their private ails.” Without being psychoanalytical, I believe the Block of Four have a bumper crop of private ails they are acting through publicly. They have seemly arranged their lives so as to minimize accountability. They all work independently in their occupations, and have no one looking over their shoulders to scrutinize their products. If they have a bad day at work no one is the wiser. It is rationalized away quickly and easily. There is no boss to whom they must be accountable. I fear the same is true of their relationship on Council. As Council Members no one in the City administration will call them out for any poor decisions or actions. They count on people in the community not caring and following their actions. Until last year these people could get elected for three years with only a couple hundred votes, stand at Watson's Corner and wave to people and be in for another three years. Fortunately, terms have been reduced to two years.

When Vice Mayor unilaterally commissioned a re-write of the personnel chapter of the Bethel Municipal Code by our former law firm in Anchorage, there was only tepid comment from his colleagues about how he should have gotten full Council consent. The project cost at least $14,000 in expenses. Had anyone in administration done such a thing he would have been calling for that person’s head. Again, there are no consequences for actions. If a mistake is made by the City Council and the City is sued, the Block of Four feels reassured that it will be taken care of by our municipal underwriters. Plop, plop, sweep, sweep! It's all so very easy. The City administration cannot complain and the people are none the wiser.

However, the house of cards regarding non-accountability may be tumbling for the Block of Four. The termination of the City Attorney, also known as “The Friday Cocktail Hour Massacre”, leaves a colossal mess. The City's insurance (APEI) has already declared that their insurance will not cover damages resulting from the termination of an employee in which legal advice was not obtained beforeheand and no clear effort was made to follow the law. Plop, plop! But not so easy to sweep, sweep. I believe that when the community fully realizes the legal cost associated with this termination of the City Attorney, the Block of Four will be held accountable, finally. One of the stalwart members of the Block of Four has already been quoted in a recent Delta Discovery article that had he only known that there was a clause which required them to obtain legal advice he would not have voted for the termination. Anything to avoid accountability!

The City administration is in shambles. Everyone is waiting the second shoe to drop, which is the termination of the City Manager. There is a pall across the administration which makes it virtually impossible to think of and plan for the future with much optimism. The City Council is not looked upon as being supportive to our efforts. I believe they have no understanding about morale. There is a feeling that they are driving the bus swerving on a cliff side road going down a steep grade and the brakes are spongy.

We have the FY2009 budget approval process staring us in the face, union negotiations, difficult decisions on water and sewer projects, a hugely expensive fire house roof repair issue, funding for a new police department building and many other issues facing the city. All this would be daunting even if we had a good partnership with City Council. We have recently been treated to Council actions on Budget Modifications to the present operating budget. The Block of Four wanted to zero out the account for the City Attorney even while we are soliciting applicants for the job; that would put the city in the position of advertising for a job that has no funding! They were fortunately talked out of doing that by a voice of reason from the minority, to which—for once—they listened.

So we slog on. It will be interesting to see how the Block of Four will react to their mounting legal issues. Their track record indicates they will take a self-preservation route which is not in the best interests of the community.

Thanks for your work in documenting these events, and for allowing me to add an inside perspective.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the long view, speaking as someone who has lived in Bethel and watched its rhythms for about 30 years. At some point in pretty much every winter, one agency or another is in crisis. I've seen it with various city departments, the city as a whole, various state agencies, churches and non-profits.

Just like what is happening now, everyone (and often, but not always, people who have lived in Bethel for less than 5 years) gets all riled up and starts looking for a cat to kick, or at least someone to take the blame for whatever outrage or another is on the agenda that year. Oh sure, there's usually a right and a wrong (or a smarter and stupider) point of view. But that ulimately is irrelevant.

I used to get all caught up in these things, as you obviously now are, until I realized it didn't make one whit of difference. Your involvement is good, as are your ideas, but this just isn't as horrible and serious as you're thinking. This is far from the worst act of stupidity that has happened within city government, or even the most far-reaching, and it won't be the last.

As for your mayor, seems like I've known him since he was just a kid. He tries to be thoughtful and is well-meaning. I'm sure he would do what he could to fix the situation if he knew what could be done. My suggestion is that if you have positive ideas for how to rectify the situation that you approach the mayor and talk to him and try to help him dig out of the hole he has gotten himself into. Don't be accusatory and don't be agressive and don't take the conspiratorial tone that you've set out in this blog. Be friendly and constructive and you might contribute to a solution rather than exacerbating it.

Just my 2 cents - worth what you paid for it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 1:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To say the current Vice Mayor, or Mayor for that matter, is "well-meaning" and "thoughtful" is a gross misconception. For someone to campaign for economic development during elections and yet refuse to sign a basic letter of support for a project that will bring 35 high paying jobs to the community, unclog the emergency medical services, and provide safe shelter for local inebriants, reeks of contradiction -- and yes, p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l agenda. Neither holds public office with integrity or transparency, both of which they claim to hold on to as part of their character. It is an injustice to the tax-paying citizens of this city -- whether they have been paying taxes for 30 years, or less than 5.

Similarly, length of time living in Bethel should not constitute any one person clout, or expertise, over another. One could live here 5, 10, 35, or 70 years, it wouldn't make a difference in understanding what goes on in Bethel. Life long residents have wormed out of the woodwork speaking against the current council's action and not one of the "Block of Four" either respected or appreciated their input in the PUBLIC's process.

Anonymous, it is disappointing that you would feel mediocrity is a standard to which the local government should aspire. Exposing the current council's mindless actions, and calling them so, is not "exacerbating" the problem. If the problem lies in the actions of the council, it stems from the seven people occupying the decision-making seats.

Hopefully one day the city council will recognize that their actions affect lives. Not just the lives of new community members or the community members who have lived here for nearly 30 years, but community members who have been within the city's limits prior to the Moravian missionaries' localization of the traditionally nomadic population.

Shame on the "typical political" behavior our politicians are pouring into Bethel's political scene.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 2:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who is riled by all the recent shenanigans at the city, and as someone who has lived here a lot longer than five years, I find it difficult to lump this latest fiasco in with previous upswings in crazy council happenings. I still recall the days when our last manager and had the privilege of being public enemy number one. He somehow had the fortitude to put up with them for eight years, but prior to that we were burning through managers faster than my home burns through fuel. Professionals understand how to do their jobs. That is why we pay them with our tax dollars. People who are marginally employed should not be micromanaging professionals just because they are on council.

My personal issue with our current mayor is that he is the only one of these idiots that I personally voted for and based on his history in this community I expected better. He is not as idiotic as the others, but he is highly susceptible to the ideas of anyone who strokes his ego. This has turned him into a pawn and the longer he takes to come to his senses the more pathetic and manipulated he seems. This is sad because he was elected by the “silent majority” who though he had more class and self respect than what recent events have revealed. The others won straw pulls and were the last resort candidates that got their slots as a result of pretty much just having their names on the ballot.

My positive suggestion is to start completely over. Lets dump the entire council and see who can get reelected based on what we know now. My guess would be that the only current members who would be sitting up there after an election would be the three that keep trying to talk some sense into the Crazies. And maybe with the bad seeds out of the picture other competent individuals with a true interest in the betterment of our community might give council a whirl. As it stands now, who in their right mind would want to get their reputation thrown in with this crowd.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 4:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

**People who are marginally employed should not be micromanaging professionals just because they are on council. **

Here, here! TPA, have you thought of acquiring the e-mail addresses of the councilmembers and sending them a link to this blog?

While I am not personally upset over Ms. Sigmund being dismissed, I'm sorry for the way it was done and think the Block of 4, in particular 'NACM' is a disappointing statement on local representation.

I've heard the next person they're gunning for is Mr. Baird. I feel they'd be shooting the city in the foot - I've never seen him act with anything but respect and concern for the city.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008 11:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad we aren't in Louisiana. Can you say "Gator Bait"? I'd better be careful, Clipped Gerbil may interpret that as "Jail Bait". Remember Gerbil, 15 will get you 20, and "trap door" means something else in the Big House.

I am part of a growing community known as FORMER residents of Bethel. I see more and more of these folks everyday at places like the rec center, or the pool, or at any number of places where they can take their children for entertainment. Most, like me, have young families, and relocated not because Bethel is the proverbial "shithole" that some say it is, but because these opportunities will NEVER EXIST as long as there are bafoons like Clipped Gerbil, McCheese, Torch and Beetle Baily (how else to describe a CAREER E-5?) making decisions for the City.

Now, I expect some sneers and jeers from the old timers about leaving town. Fine, give it your best shot, but consider this: How long can the community afford to lose young professionals and their families, the future of Bethel? Do you want to bet YOUR future on it?

While you ponder the question, I'm going to the liquor store to buy 1 single beer, just because I can.

Thursday, March 20, 2008 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger marcyinak said...

A friend sent me your blog link and thought I might find it interesting/amusing. She was right! I moved from Bethel to Nome last year and when asked why I wanted to leave my response was that Bethel (and the surrounding region) just had a Spirit of Complacency.

That statement is no more evident than when you look at the City Council.

A friend once told me to consider running for City Council, but when I found out that it was a VOLUNTEER position where you had to spend one FULL night a week worrying more about Robert's Rules of Order than with the City of Bethel...well, it was clear where my time was better spent.

You get what you pay for!

Thank you for your insight!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 1:21:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...


I have to put in my two cents about the infamous city council, in particular, the obnoxious four. What happened in their upbringing to make them so determined to have complete and total control?

Their approach always begins with, "my constituents". Right! Their constituents are the other two or three council members that they party with. They are their own constituents feeding off of each other. It's a sad state of affairs when they come up with an agenda that they claim is for the best interest of the city but really, it's not. Their personal agendas are clouding the issues, city business needs to get done. At the rate they are going items on today's agenda may still be there a year from now because the obnoxious four want to tear it apart and throw it in every direction they can just to stop progress. That's the council for ya.

The voters of Bethel need to realize that the current management within the City's administration are truly professionals and more importantly, they know what they are doing. Instead of appreciating them and their dedication and hard work the council chooses to micromanage and look for anything and everything to discredit them. What a shame and truely a shame it is.

The City manager has many years of experience, trust in him and let him do his job. He's got the college credentials as well as years of experience under his belt. Many of us don't care what the council thinks of him on the personal level but you know what, you don't have to like him to work with him. That's where you are missing the boat. Maybe if you went to college and took courses in business, personnel management, how to deal with diffcult people, how to strategically plan, budget, COMMUNICATE, and especially how to be a true professional council member we would all be better off. By the way, KuC has a great instructor for this, Wally Baird. It would be great if you would consider coming to school and earning a few credits, the benefit reaped is two fold, you would be learning something and the local campus would be earning credit hour production. I strongly advise you four to consider this.

All in all nothing seems to change the attitute and mentality of the obnoxious four, the only avenue the voters of Bethel have is to have them removed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008 12:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This evening on the news I heard Mayor Eric "Mugabe" Middlebrook at a council meeting last week pressuring the city manager to release Councilman Willie Keppel from his civil penalties by instructing the judge to dismiss the case. This was after Keppel failed to observe city ordinances and hook up to the city sewer system. Instead he dumped his sewage in the tundra. The kind of example that could lead us all to cholera. He ignored citations served him by the city that have been well documented. Mayor "Mugabe" as we have come to know him, also instructed the City Clerk to throw out citizen petitions to recall him and another city council representative. These council members swore to uphold the laws of this City and by extension the laws of our state and nation. They are so deep into this mess that they lost whatever ethical perspective they might have once possessed.

Monday, April 21, 2008 7:16:00 PM  
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