At last week’s Haines Borough Assembly meeting, member Ron Jackson proposed a closer look into, and possible termination of, the borough’s $45,000 lobbyist contract. And while the motion failed, it sparked debate that could affect future borough lobbyists.
“You’ve gotta be like a duck, and let the rain run off the back, you know?” says Bill Thomas, the borough’s lobbyist. “Don’t let it bother you.”
His contract came under fire at the tail end of last week’s meeting. The motion was brought forward by Jackson, who had tried to broach the subject at a previous meeting. Thomas has already been paid $22,500, half of his yearly salary. Now that the legislative session is over, Jackson proposed looking at the possibility of ending the contract this month and spending the rest of the money elsewhere.
Assemblymember Margaret Friedenauer says the contract is vague and raises concerns because it doesn’t specify whether that $45,000 covers only Thomas’ hours during the 90-day session, or year-round.
“I know I don’t have the same interpretation of the contract as Mr. Thomas or as maybe other assembly members, and so that’s a problem,” she says. “I don’t know what to do about it. Maybe it’s a learning moment.”
The contract doesn’t specify Thomas’ role throughout the year. As far as the scope of service, basically it says the work relates to government relations between Haines Borough and the State of Alaska. It also doesn’t clarify any kind of timeline. Back in December, the assembly was split on the decision to hire Thomas. Some of the same concerns arose about the lack of a detailed plan. Mayor Jan Hill broke that tie in favor of the hire. On Tuesday, Hill responded to Friedenauer and Jackson, saying that Thomas has offered to lobby for the borough on a federal level throughout the year, and meet with the incoming borough manager.
“I don’t know how many other ways I can tell you how valuable his services were this year,” says Hill. “I know not everybody believes that. The clearest example I have is we still have our water and sewer treatment plant in the governor’s budget and there were people wanting that money and he has protected that. If nothing else, I ask you to keep that in mind. There’s one million, 40 thousand dollars that we would not have today if we didn’t have somebody on the floor protecting it for us.”
Thomas also maintains that his time in Juneau was productive and necessary.
“I’ve told people, it’s not always about money, it’s also about policy, and what you can get in policies and helping make changes,” Thomas says. “And keeping what you have in budgets is a big thing. I had told them I would go to D.C. if they go and they pay the expenses, but it was typically for session only.”
At the assembly meeting, the discussion went on for nearly half an hour. It got a little heated and emotional at times. Friedenauer and Jackson say their beef isn’t with Thomas, but the lobbyist contract in general. Here’s Jackson:
“We have a contract that’s really vague, not something I would ever want to sign again. We need to work on this. The scope of work in here is so vague. From now on, there’s nothing he has to do except write weekly reports because there’s nothing says they stop at the end of the session.”
Other assembly members chimed in and called the idea of cancelling the contract now disappointing. Here’s George Campbell, who phoned into the meeting:
“Here’s another situation where people voted on a contract and the contract passed. I’m sorry, but it’s without honor to try and now try and squeeze someone out of the rest of their contract after they’ve done the work. We all knew that the session is the main part where we wanted someone. This is very bad form.”
The assembly agreed that future contracts need to be fleshed out. And that they should look into ways of utilizing Thomas until the end of the year when the contract expires. As for Thomas, he says he’ll put in a proposal next year, but if the amount of work goes up, so does the cost.
“Nobody else is going to come in here and do it for $45,000 if you’ve got 30 objectives to get to,” Thomas says.
The motion to direct the manager to work with the borough’s attorney to clarify the termination clause in the contract, and if possible, end the agreement at the end of this month failed 5-1. Jackson was the only member to vote in favor. The next assembly meeting is June 14 at 6:30 p.m.
Find the lobbyist contract here.