Haines’ new borough manager is breaking ground in a couple ways: she’s the first woman to ever serve as the town’s permanent manager, and she’s a local. Debra Schnabel started work Monday, although her contract has not been finalized. She takes the helm during a challenging time. Haines is in the midst of a recall effort, two assembly members have resigned for political reasons, and Schnabel’s hire itself was criticized by many.
Over the past few years, Haines struggled to hold on to managers. One left before his contract was up. Another was fired. Residents called for the assembly to hire local. And their wishes were answered: the choice came down to two local candidates.
Brad Ryan is the public facilities director who stepped in as interim manager. Debra Schnabel was the Chamber of Commerce director and a former assembly member. Most borough employees who spoke out, and many other community members, were in favor of Ryan.
“I’m fully aware there are people on my staff right now who are not supportive of my having this position,” Schnabel said on her third day as manager. “But everyone on the staff has behaved very professionally and I have appreciated that. And work is getting done. My day to day work has been exactly as I would expect it if I had walked into a job where there was no contention at all.”
But there are still questions about Schnabel’s position. She’s working without a finalized contract, despite the assembly’s unanimous approval of an agreement last week.
The issue has to do with health insurance. Schnabel wanted to waive her borough health insurance because she has Medicare. She wanted to instead dedicate that money to professional development for borough staff and advisory boards. But this week, she learned that the borough’s health trust requires all eligible employees to have the borough insurance.
Schnabel’s contract will be on the assembly’s June 13 meeting agenda.
There’s another looming question. Schnabel’s brother, Roger, owns a construction company in Haines: Southeast Road Builders. The company regularly contracts with the borough. The municipal attorney sent out an opinion shortly before last week’s assembly meeting saying according to conflict of interest rules in borough code, Roger Schnabel could not contract with the borough if Debra is manager.
The attorney said for a town as small as Haines, the assembly may consider changing code to make conflict of interest rules less strict.
“Do I expect members of the community to come forward and say ‘don’t change the code for Debra Schnabel?’ Of course I expect that,” Schnabel said. “Is that fair to the community? I don’t think so.”
Schnabel says the borough’s conflict of interest policy around family members is a bigger question, it’s not just about her. She says the issue has come up for other borough employees and planning commissioners, for example.
“Do I think that’s something the borough needs to address — looking at what are the benefits and what are the losses that we could experience by having the code that we do?” Schnabel said. “That needs to be evaluated.”
Contracting isn’t the only potential problem area. Roger Schnabel is also a major landowner in the borough. He routinely applies for land use permits and conditional use permits. According to attorney advice, Debra Schnabel is working on a policy to delegate decisions that have to do with her brother to another borough representative.
Whether the assembly will tackle the conflict of interest issue right away remains to be seen. The Haines governing body is dealing with contention and instability itself. Two assembly members, Margaret Friedenauer and Mike Case, resigned recently. Three others, Heather Lende, Tresham Gregg, and Tom Morphet may be subject to a special recall election.
Schnabel says she wants to explore the root of the divisiveness that has roiled Haines over the last several months. She referred to the ‘Make Haines Great Again’ slogan that residents associated with the recall campaign have used.
“The problem right now is that we seem to have division about what’s best for the community,” Schnabel said. “I want to hear from the people who want to ‘make Haines great again.’ But there doesn’t seem to be agreement on how we’re going to do that.”
Schnabel hopes to have that conversation with the community. As for her other overarching goals as manager, she says to ask her once she has a final contract.