On Tuesday night, the Haines Assembly sought a new direction over stability in its choice for the borough’s top municipal job. Pending contract negotiations, Debra Schnabel will be Haines’ new borough manager. She was one of two finalists, both of whom are locals. The familiarity of the candidates made the decision especially personal to Haines residents. The rollercoaster ride of a meeting ended with one assembly member resigning.
Emotions are heightened in Haines right now. Three assembly members are targets of a recall effort that is currently in the signature-gathering stage. The acrimony of the recall loomed over the manager hiring process.
“Probably the most pressing issue is the division in the community and that’s where I feel my strength is,” said current interim manager Brad Ryan.
Ryan told the assembly that he could bring people together. Here’s his answer to what impact he hopes he would have as manager:
“I’d like people to say I’ve brought calm and at least a direction forward,” Ryan said. “Maybe not consensus, but a community that can talk to each other and agree to disagree without getting hostile or emotional about it.”
For many people, Ryan represented stability. He has only worked for the Haines Borough for a year and a half, but in that time he has served as interim manager twice. His regular job is director of public facilities. Ryan had the strong support of many borough employees. Chief Fiscal Officer Jila Stuart said Ryan has helped the staff heal after years of leadership turnover.
“It just seems like such a shame when we’ve had such turmoil and turnover in the manager position to finally meet with some success, to think about throwing it away,” Stuart said.
But for the assembly members who may be looking for a new direction, there was another candidate: Debra Schnabel.
“I do think that our borough, I’m not going to say it suffers, but I think it could benefit by having our leadership have more time to deal with visioning and doing more to develop a better community as a whole,” Schnabel said. “I think in a lot of ways we’re very reactionary.”
Schnabel is a lifelong Haines resident. For the past few years, she’s led the local chamber of commerce. But she’s also served in the assembly and done work for the borough.
Schnabel too addressed the contention epitomized by the recall effort. She said the biggest challenges facing Haines are infrastructure projects and community division.
“I think the pressing need is for greater community cohesion in problem solving,” Schnabel said.
The specter of the recall carried into the public comments in support of Ryan or Schnabel. Carol Tunyman said Schnabel as manager and Ryan as facilities director could be the team that leads the borough to a happier place.
“What I’ve become aware of is there’s a lot of pain in this community,” Tunyman said. “I think it’s gonna take at least 3-5 years for us to stop blaming each other and us to stop going behind each other’s backs and recalling candidates.”
Members of the public spoke for about 30 minutes, with the majority supporting Ryan.
The assembly debated whether they should deliberate in public or in executive session. They ultimately voted to speak privately.
It wasn’t a fast decision. After more than two hours in executive session, they came back to the dais. Tresham Gregg spoke first.
“We have two really great candidates that we all really respect and love,” Gregg said. “And we’re just all trying to be as forward-thinking as we can.”
The assembly first had to vote on a motion that Mike Case made before the executive session: to hire Ryan. That motion failed, 4-2, with Case and Margaret Friedenauer the only ones in favor.
Then, Tom Morphet moved to hire Schnabel. And Case said that even though he thought Ryan was the better candidate, he would vote for her. So, the tally was 5-1 for Schnabel. Morphet, Case, Gregg, Heather Lende and Ron Jackson were in favor. Friedenauer was opposed. Lende explained her reasoning.
“I want to say that I was swayed by the people who pointed out what a great team they would be,” Lende said. “And I have a lot of confidence in Debra and a lot of confidence in Brad. And I think this is a vote of confidence in both and it’s a vote of confidence for our community.”
Lende said she would be proud to have a manager and a mayor who are graduates of Haines High School. That didn’t sit well with borough employee Krista Kielsmeier, who spoke in favor of Ryan.
“I didn’t grow up here, I didn’t go to Haines High School,” Kielsmeier said. “But I work hard, I have a record of progressively responsible experience. So I really relate to Brad, he moved here, he has progressively responsible experience, he’s done the job, he’s done it twice. And what you’ve just done is told me that I don’t matter because I didn’t grow up here and I haven’t lived here for 20 years. And I’ve never felt more like I don’t belong here.”
Kielsmeier accused the assembly of cronyism. She asked them to reconsider their decision.
It was almost 11 p.m., but there was one more surprise left in the evening. Before the meeting adjourned, Asssemblyman Case announced he was resigning and walked out of the room.
“So goodnight and good luck to Debra and to all of you,” Case said.
He told KHNS the next day that he resigned out of frustration with the four assembly members who voted against Ryan.
“It was in my opinion, a set-up job, so to speak,” Case said. “Asking the employees what they thought and then completely ignoring their endorsement of Brad was a real slap in the face.”
Case is 84, and he said health issues have made him consider resigning before this. But he said he may have stuck it out the five remaining months left in his term if the assembly had chosen Ryan.
The details of Schnabel’s hire have yet to be worked out. She and the assembly still need to negotiate a contract.