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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

The Front-Page Test

By Dan Bockhorst


August 14, 2021
Saturday PM

The Front-Page Test is a simple way to consider whether an action is ethical. The test involves answering the following question: If I took a particular action, how would I feel if details were reported on the front page of the local newspaper?

Now, apply the test to the circumstances described below. (The description is my opinion and belief.)

1. MISUSE OF PUBLIC RESOURCES. In April, the borough manager directed his staff to prepare an in-house compensation study exclusively for his position. The manager did so even though the borough had spent $65,000 for a consultant to conduct a compensation study for the manager’s position and those of all other borough employees. The purpose of the manager’s internal study was to gather information for the manager to negotiate a new employment contract. That was a misuse of public resources. The in-house study by the manager’s staff, funded by public monies, did not serve a public interest; it only served the manager’s private interests as an individual pursuing an employment contract with the borough.

2. STUDY USED DIFFERENT STANDARDS AND PROCEDURES. The manager’s internal study did not follow the same model used in the $65,000 consultant study. The internal study established an illusory benchmark for negotiation of the manager’s new contract. The study was not conducted at arm’s length. The in-house study examined salaries of the Ketchikan city manager and managers in 13 other communities throughout Alaska. However, there was no geographic adjustment for labor costs. Ten of the fourteen communities, including Nome, Aleutian Islands, Bethel, Bristol Bay, and Cordova had higher labor costs compared to Ketchikan; two were equal to Ketchikan, and two had lower costs. The $65,000 consultant study determined that the market parity for the manager was $154,900; however, that figure was not used in the manager’s in-house study. Yet, the in-house study included the $219,996 salary for the Ketchikan city manager. Also included was a comparison to a manager with 40 years’ experience. That comparison was heavily skewed because it didn’t take benefits into account (the in-house study ignored benefits for all comparisons). Based on the in-house study, the manager proposed an increase in his salary to $175,000 (a 23% increase) plus a 20% increase in paid time off.

3. PROPOSED SALARY INCREASE CONCEALED. In a 17-page overview of the borough’s 166-page, $55.8 million budget for the current year, the manager clearly pointed out that funds were included for a salary increase for the assistant manager. The manager wrote in the budget overview: “The only position addressed in this budget is the assistant manager position.” Remarkably, there was no mention that a 23% salary increase was also included for his position. Borough law calls for the budget to promote trust and confidence through complete reporting, transparency, and accountability – those standards were clearly ignored with respect to the manager’s proposed salary increase.

4. DO FOR ME BUT NOT FOR THEE. When the borough embarked on the $65,000 consultant study, the manager stressed the study would determine if wages and benefits were equitable and aligned with the labor market. He emphasized it was best to deal with compensation adjustments for all 112 borough employees at the same time to be fair. Yet, when the pandemic delayed implementation of the study, he initiated a salary increase exclusively for himself and the assistant manager, leaving the other 110 borough employees behind.

5. ASSEMBLY MAJORITY SHOWED LACK OF CONCERN. During the June 21 assembly meeting, one member of the assembly sought to briefly table the manager’s proposed new employment contract until concerns expressed about the nature of the in-house study (outlined in #2 above) could be examined. However, a second assembly member twice accused that first assembly member of pandering to a private citizen who had raised the concerns in the first place. That second assembly member also repeatedly insulted the private citizen – a constituent. The mayor had a duty under borough code to immediately restore decorum but didn’t do so. Since the manager’s current contract didn’t expire for six months, it’s disappointing that the assembly wouldn’t take a brief pause to consider the serious questions that had been raised. In the end, by a 5 – 2 vote, the assembly approved a new three-year contract for the borough manager increasing his annual salary to $160,000 (a 12.6% salary increase) and nine weeks of paid time off and holidays (a 20% increase in paid time off).

6. TWO MANAGERS NOT NEEDED. The borough manager proposed that the assembly approve a new pay classification for the assistant manager position. The job duties described in the assistant manager’s reclassification proposal are remarkably like those of the manager. Either those job duties are grossly exaggerated, or taxpayers will be paying for two borough managers. The reclassification proposal is a complex matter. That should be evident from the fact that the manager proposed a 25% increase in the pay range for the position. Yet, the borough manager placed the proposed reclassification on the consent calendar for the July 19 assembly meeting. The law prescribes that matters listed under the consent calendar are considered routine. Assembly members realized it was a complex matter and removed the proposal from the consent calendar. Ultimately, they postponed consideration of the matter to a later time.

7. ASSISTANT MANAGER PRESELECTED? It is widely believed among some groups that the borough manager has already chosen the person to fill the assistant manager position. It is further believed that the only thing holding up the appointment is reclassification of the assistant manager position. As proposed by the manager, reclassification would increase the pay range for that position by 25%.

8. HYBRID FORM OF GOVERNMENT. Local governments have either a “strong mayor” form of government (where the mayor is chief administrator) or a manager form of government (where the manager is chief administrator). Ketchikan voters chose a manager form of government a half-century ago. However, in effect, our borough seems to be currently operating under an illegitimate hybrid of the two. In at least one instance, the current mayor gave direction to borough staff outside a public meeting on a matter about which assembly direction had not been given. The mayor admitted such at the May 3 assembly meeting when he stated he had asked the finance director to include a placeholder in the budget for a $175,000 salary for the manager. If dealing with staff in an out-of-bounds manner occurred in one case, there’s no reason to expect that it hasn’t occurred previously or won’t occur in future instances. In the past, problems have arisen when individual elected officials have given staff direction without the will of the entire assembly.

In applying the Front-Page Test, if you had taken the actions characterized above, how would you feel if details were reported on the front page of the local newspaper?

Dan Bockhorst
Ketchikan, Alaska




Editor's Note:

The text of this letter was NOT edited by the SitNews Editor.

Received August 14, 2021 - Published August 14, 2021

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