Haines Borough Assembly fires borough manager Debra Schnabel

Debra Schnabel during her interview with the assembly. (Emily Files/KHNS)

A narrowly divided Haines Borough Assembly has fired its manager.  The 4-3 decision to remove Debra Schnabel followed a contentious two-hour meeting behind closed doors.

The process of removing Debra Schnabel began last week with Assembly member Paul Rogers moving to suspend her with pay from her post. He told his colleagues that she did not take direction from the assembly and accused her of using borough resources inappropriately.

“I have come to realize that there are serious shortcomings in the manager’s behavior and her response to some situations. I think these things are detrimental to the overall business of the borough,” Rogers said.

Assembly member Brenda Josephson agreed, saying that she had heard an increase in complaints about the manager.

Before the assembly met to discuss her future, Schnabel asked the assembly to take a step back. She recommended a formal evaluation so she could take steps to improve her working relationship with her critics.

“We know each other and we know that we are going to be living together. I ask that we learn to grow together,” Schnabel said.

Schnabel was evaluated by the assembly twice. In 2017, she was evaluated three months after being hired and she received another evaluation from the assembly in August of 2018. She has not received an evaluation since then.

Earlier this month Assembly Member Josephson complained that the assembly’s personnel committee had not been willing to address the manager’s performance.

“It’s been delay. It’s been stall. It’s been an unwillingness to address the issues,” Josephson said.

According to Rogers and other detractors, Schnabel improperly hired borough staff to sand a private road leading to a trailer park she owns. She admitted that was wrong. She admitted that was wrong.

Rogers also criticized her handling of a legal dispute between the borough and a landowner over a broken fire hydrant. Furthermore, the manager has been criticized for publicly confronting a business owner over not wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The manager has had her supporters. Before the assembly met privately to discuss terminating the manager, more than a dozen people spoke up in her defense. Haines resident Tom Heywood, urged the assembly not to terminate her, especially as the community grappled with its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Firing our manager will add further chaos and hamper us as we transition into whatever this future brings that are the new challenges related to the virus,” Heywood said.

Assembly members Paul Rogers, Brenda Josephson and Gabe Thomas voted to remove Schnabel without cause. Assembly members Zephyr Sincerny, Stephanie Scott and Jerry Lapp voted against firing her. Mayor Jan Hill broke the tie in favor of terminating the manager’s employment. After the meeting, none of the four who voted to fire Schnabel commented on the decision and KHNS’ requests for interviews were declined or went unanswered.

Assembly Member Stephanie Scott⁠—who had voted against firing her⁠—said she felt the whole thing was unnecessary.

“I think we could have easily retained Debra for a short period of time and followed with an evaluation and then the community would have been aware of the worries that three of the assembly have expressed. Now we have divided the community,” Scott said.

The assembly voted to have the mayor release a statement about the decision later this week. They also offered the manager time at the next assembly meeting to respond to any public statements made during previous public meetings about her employment. In a letter to the borough attorney, Schnabel’s lawyer said Rogers’ remarks about Schnabel’s character amounted to defamation.

Borough Clerk Alekka Fullerton will serve as the interim manager. How the assembly intends to find a full-time replacement has not been announced.

This is story has been corrected with the information that Schnabel received two, not one evaluations during her tenure. The story has also been clarified to indicate that the mayor broke the tie vote in favor of firing the manager.