In small town Alaska, conflicts of interest a tricky subject

Wrangell’s Assembly meets at 7 p.m. Tuesdays at chambers in City Hall. (Photo courtesy of KSTK)

Running a small town can be tricky: everyone knows everyone and conflicts of interest easily arise as people move from public service to public employment – and back again. Wrangell’s city manager’s recent decision to hire a sitting Assembly member raised eyebrows.

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Rolland Howell was recently tapped to be the director of Public Works. The job pays $80,000 a year and has good benefits. But here’s the thing: when Howell applied he was an elected member of the Assembly.

What’s that mean? Well, the city manager hires senior city employees. And they serve at the pleasure of the Assembly.

Imagine being interviewed by one of your employees for a job where they’d be your boss.

City Manager Lisa Von Bargen understands the weird optics. But she checked with the city’s attorney.

“There was nothing that precluded him as a seated assembly member at that time from applying,” Von Bargen said.

Those in the know say this type of thing happens all the time.

“When it comes especially to small communities across Alaska we have community members who are wearing multiple hats,” said Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, which advises local governments on sticky issues like these.

“I think a good best practice is just be be upfront about what that conflict of interest is,” Andreassen said.

The move didn’t sit right with one Assembly member. David Powell voted against the deal.

“I consider Mr. Howell a friend, but this is not about him being a friend or him getting a job. It’s about our code,” Powell said.

So what does Wrangell’s code say? An elected official can take a city job if he or she receives a waiver from the Assembly – and then resigns. That’s what happened. The vote was 4 to 1 with only Powell against.

Other assembly members defended the move.

“The point of the waiver process as well is that it puts it in front of the community in an open forum, a public forum so we can have that discussion and make a judgement call,” Assemblywoman Julie Decker said.

Local governments like Wrangell write their own rules. They can be as strict or lax as they want. That’s because Alaska is a home rule state, where the state has little influence on how a city governs itself. In fact, until this year, Wrangell’s rule was a lot stricter.

“We’ve had multiple occasions where good assembly members had to step down from serving on the assembly because their grandson wanted to work at the movie theater, or their daughter wanted to be a lifeguard at the pool, where we can’t even get enough lifeguards to apply,” Decker said.

But the city’s policy against nepotism was loosened after a mayor’s son-in-law brought up the issue. He’d had a job offer with parks and recreation retracted due to his relationship with the mayor. That’s when the Assembly changed some rules.

Wrangell’s school district made a similar move this year, though with less public scrutiny.

Georgianna Buhler served as the School Board president. She left her seat to apply for and be hired as the district’s business manager.

The district says this hire didn’t conflict with its own rules. It seems the city’s deal wasn’t unusual in a town of 2,000-plus people.