Win Gruening: Juneau Assembly transparency deficit disorder, Part II



In a previous column, I described several City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meetings where actions taken were less than transparent. In that column, I discussed (1) an ordinance appropriating $50,000 to be used to advocate for the new City Hall; (2) the non-disclosure of emails that constitute public testimony; and (3) the surprise selection of former CBJ Assembly member Loren Jones to fill the position of resigning member Carole Triem.

With one exception, there’s been no reaction from the Assembly to public concerns. This seems odd since these items are relatively easy to resolve. Publishing communications from the public regarding a pending Assembly matter is simple enough, as would be drafting an Assembly policy requiring it. As for the late-night Assembly vacancy announcement, it seems the mayor could have publicly revealed her reasons for filling the position for such a brief period before the election.

Instead, the Assembly has doubled down on its lack of transparency as evidenced by the recent city manager “search and selection”. We are told that the process was a “rigorous” nation-wide search that selected the most qualified candidate. But how can the public be assured of that since the entire process was confidential and conducted in executive session? 

But first, back to the $50,000 appropriation ordinance referenced earlier. Assembly member Michelle Hale publicly responded in a Juneau Empire My Turn defending the Assembly’s decision to authorize spending public money advocating for a $27 million bond issue to partially pay for the new city hall. 

However, the main justification she cited was a 9-year-old Alaska Public Offices Commission case that has limited similarity and wouldn’t have prevented municipal officials from providing neutral election information to voters. The case involved a Fairbanks City Council member who was fined $37.50 for using his official email account to request information benefiting his mayoral election campaign. 

Regardless, none of the city manager’s statements or Assembly discussions mentioned this APOC case until now. It’s either another example of lack of transparency or simply looking for an excuse after the fact. Neither further promotes trust in local government.

The recruitment and selection process for the new city manager is another case in point.

The Assembly City Manager Recruitment Committee met six times between May 15 and July 24. Five of the six meetings that were held lasted barely an hour and the public portion of the meetings rarely exceeded 10 minutes. The sixth meeting involved interviews, was quite lengthy, and extended in executive session over two days.

According to what little information was provided, no independent search firm was used during the process. The initial screening of applications was handled internally by the city human resources department. The committee then reviewed candidate applications, interviewed candidates remotely, and then landed on a few finalists who made a site visit and interviewed with the full Assembly. 

A proper search is essential in fulfilling the Assembly’s fiduciary duties to its employees and the public. An insider hire after a rigorous search allows the new manager to say, “I earned this.” However, this process was so cloaked in mystery, no one outside of the Assembly and a few city officials knew who was being interviewed.

The first time the public learned the identity of the internal candidate was when the Assembly appointed her city manager. The public was never invited to meet any of the other finalists and still doesn’t  know who they were.

In contrast, recent top management searches by the Juneau School District and Bartlett Regional Hospital employed national search firms and introduced finalists in news releases and public forums.

There can be reasons to keep applicant identities confidential, up to a point. But, for a high-profile leadership position, the public deserves to know more. If there are reasons why this hasn’t been done, why haven’t they been stated?

This should not reflect on Katie Koester, Juneau’s new city manager. She may well have been the most qualified candidate, but the public will never be able to judge that for themselves. The Assembly did her a disservice by denying her the opportunity to showcase her qualifications vis-à-vis the other candidates.

Transparency in government is crucial to gaining public trust.

Why doesn’t the Assembly get that?

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

Win Gruening: Juneau spending up, taxes up, population flat

Win Gruening: Change in capital city leadership brings opportunity

Win Gruening: Education funding is complicated, political


  1. Koester? … Let’s see … How many times have Juneau residents heard that name before? Answer: LOTS.

    You’d think they would have put an end to the corruption by now, but you’d be wrong.

    • I refer to Juneau as a faux junta because of how they act. But in truth, this is rampant oligarchy in action.

      We have the “establishment families” who keep a tight leash on things.

  2. Why don’t they get that? Win, it’s clear that keeping a close circle of influence wins the narrative in their favor, this is how government works today. Control will always be contrived in the dark that works better without public oversight! Once this becomes routine, the public is desensitized (desensitization) : as a complex process involving classical and instrumental conditioning. As an aside, there are also clear trends warranting a very cautious attitude regarding the respective roles of relaxation, extinction, and subject-experimenter relational factors.) Really what question would a corporation want to inquire of a new employee ? Can you follow direction(s).

  3. In truth, I’m not as opposed to “I earned this” as you are. Provided they person in question actually did earn the shot.

    CBJ is a hard place to live. Most out of towers we bring in last less than 5 years before heading south.

    If we can get somebody who can actually grow into the job (assuming the job is actually needed) who’s local, I’m all for it.

    It’s the lack of transparency I have issues with.

  4. Thanks to Win for trying to shine daylight on Assembly activities. I frankly don’t understand why they are so secretive. If I was an assemblymember I would want it all done in daylight. “Executive Sessions” should be very rare if not non-existant.

    • The faux junta is so secretive because they’ve learned a hard lesson well.

      A few years ago they wanted to build an arts Taj Mahal downtown. To push it through they openly campaigned for it. They usually operate behind the scenes.

      It died hard at the ballot box. Hard. The attitude was “if you are smart enough to get “it”, you’ll vote for the Taj Mahal. Even in this very left of center community the voters said he’ll no.

      The No had basically three fathers:

      -the almighty arrogance of the upper crust who really run Juneau.

      -the failure to build a better case than “because we want it”. The so called campaign to support it was one of the most ham fisted, tone deaf things I’ve ever seen. And I used to work for the a state once upon a time.

      -it came on the heels of a very public failure regarding the whale statue/park. A venue nobody really wanted, and funded by money extorted from the cruse industry. The cruse industry sued and it cost us almost 1 million to lose it court.

      People were rightly pissed.

      So the faux junta did what conservatives rarely do. They looked at why they lost, learned from it, and kept moving forward.

      The main lesson learned was never, ever tell the peasants what you want to do. Just do it and tell them to like it. And raise property taxes.

  5. The Assembly doesn’t care what the average Juneau citizen wants or thinks. They act like supreme beings and get upset when we go against their will (a new city hall). This will continue and possibly increase as time goes by as they have no resistance.

    • Is Problem Corner still on the air? It’s been a very long time since I listed, and the last time a listener was saying Wade had drunk the cool aid.

  6. Juneau has the best chance we’ve had in years to elect 4 new Assembly members on Oct. 3rd. In my opinion, Joann Wallace, Nano Brooks, Joe Geldolf, and David Morris will serve Juneau the best and by all means, vote NO on the City Hall.

    We can get our town back on track IF people will get out and vote in person, to heck with the mail in voting too….thats another subject that was jammed down our throats and needs to be reversed.

    Thanks Win for your excellent articles.

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