Haines has two choices for borough mayor in the upcoming election. At a forum Monday, incumbent Jan Hill touted her experience and connections. Challenger Joanie Wagner has no political experience. But she said she would bring a more positive leadership style to the position.
Wagner didn’t waste time in criticizing Mayor Hill’s leadership.
“The reputation of Haines has been damaged by divisiveness,” Wagner said. “By divisiveness that has been tacitly supported by our current mayor.”
Wagner referred to public statements Hill has made on a few occasions. In one, she called the community hateful and vindictive. In another, she called out the assembly for not representing the whole community after the hire of Debra Schnabel as borough manager.
“I’ve witnessed our mayor refer to the people of Haines as hateful and mean,” Wagner said. “I see you, the people of Haines, as diverse, involved and passionate. We’re a small community and we deserve to be supported and encouraged by our mayor to pursue our highest goals.”
“I don’t see things through rose-colored glasses,” Hill responded. “I see them for what they are.”
Hill said people were asking her to speak out and that’s why she made those statements. She explained that she usually does not voice her opinions during assembly meetings.
“Those comments were from the heart, and at the time they were true,” Hill said. “People were being hateful and vindictive, and it showed. And so I will always speak my mind and be honest with how I feel on things.”
But Hill does have doubts about whether making those statements criticizing community members and the assembly was the right thing to do. When asked if she would have done anything differently in her past three years as mayor, she said this:
“I might not have made those comments that I was asked to make,” Hill said. “Because that’s why I was being quiet. I didn’t want to chime in on what was going on in the community. I was observing and quietly meeting with people who were causing the negativity. And I don’t believe for one minute that I was encouraging divisiveness.”
The divisiveness came to head in August’s special recall election. It was unsuccessful, with many voters saying the grounds were just too flimsy to unseat the three targeted assembly members. Hill and Wagner have different opinions on the recall. Wagner said the effort should never have made it to an election.
“I think it sets a dangerous precedent for Haines,” Wagner said. “That every time people don’t get the people in office that they want that they can recall and they know it’s just gonna be a done deal type of process.”
But Hill said it’s the citizens’ right.
“That process is something that’s set in place,” Hill said. “It’s part of the public process, when citizens are not happy. They have every right to do what they did.”
Neither Hill nor Wagner offered specific ideas about how to heal wounds left behind by the recall. Although Wagner did say that she sees herself as a ‘collaborator’ who can bring people together.
Wagner is an artist and business owner who started ‘First Friday’ art walk events in Haines.
“I think that what I bring, my experience, would be my ability to listen,” Wagner said. “And my ability to have people with differing opinions collaborate with each other.”
Hill is finishing up her third term as mayor, although they were not all consecutive terms. She also is a leader in regional and statewide organizations like the Alaska Municipal League and Southeast Conference. She said her biggest accomplishment in the past three years was successfully lobbying to bring those groups’ annual meetings to Haines. Southeast Conference is in town this week.
“This conference will probably bring about 200 people to our community,” Hill said. “And that’s a huge boost to our economy at a time when our economy could use a huge boost.”
Hill and Wagner were on the same page on a couple local issues. Both are opposed to excise taxes on tobacco products. They say it would hurt low income residents most.
They’re also hesitant to endorse an expansion of the police service area outside the Haines townsite. Both potential mayors say that issue should be up to outer borough residents to decide.