Three candidates for city manager were interviewed by the Cordova City Council on Sept. 28. The successful candidate will replace current City Manager Alan Lanning when his contract expires Oct. 16, according to city council minutes.
The candidates interviewed included Alida Bus, health care program coordinator for the state of Alaska; Helen Howarth, owner of Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese; and Kerin Kramer, former executive director for Native Village of Eyak. Applicant Ernest Weiss, natural resources director for the Aleutians East Borough, was not selected for a face-to-face interview. Although Weiss’s initial written application impressed the council, a Sept. 4 video interview left the City Manager Assessment Committee lukewarm.
The three remaining candidates all identified transportation as the principal challenge facing the community, and promised to maintain an open-door policy if selected.
Addressing the council, Bus struck a conversational tone, saying that, as city manager, she would work with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to identify and develop new fisheries. Bus emphasized the importance of close contact between the city and the citizenry.
“You can’t just operate in a bubble,” Bus said. “You need to understand what’s happening on the fishing grounds, what’s happening in the local coffee shack and hear from folks who are trying to make ends meet. I think the public brings in a lot of important perspective that you need to listen to.”
Though Bus conceded she lacked extensive experience in municipal government, she emphasized her work in state government as special assistant to the commissioner at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and as chief of staff for former Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan.
“I have some of the executive management skills: organization and communication,” Bus said. “I have political acumen where I can work with different personalities and ideas and implement the vision of political officeholders.”
Helen Howarth highlighted her business qualifications, putting herself forward as a candidate who could help balance Cordova’s budget by finding unconventional ways to boost efficiency. While managing friction between revenue and expenses is tricky, Howarth said, it always helps to engage in clear, detailed priority-setting.
“Being a small community is a real positive because… instead of having to solve the problems of a city of 100,000 people, you’re trying to solve the problems of a city of 2,500 people,” Howarth said. “To me, it seems doable.”
Before opening Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese, Howarth worked for the Rasmuson Foundation, analyzing grant applications and arranging partnerships with state organizations. Having no prior experience in retail or food service, Howarth conducted extensive background research to prepare herself to “cliff dive” into a new industry.
For Howarth, it’s a source of pride that several Fromagio’s employees have stayed with her for years, despite high turnover in the retail industry generally.
“I do have a big heart,” Howarth said. “I think everyone has a place at the table, and I like to listen… But I am capable of being the bad guy — in a nice way.”
Kramer described a pragmatic, detail-oriented approach to city management, touching on everything from Cordova’s high cost of living to the city’s use of Facebook for announcements. Lack of adequate ferry service could be addressed either by asking the state legislature for more funding, by privatizing the ferry service or by pursuing a hybrid option of partially subsidized privatization, she said. In the meantime, Kramer suggested exploring ways to incentivize companies like Alaska Airlines to give Cordova more service.
“Transportation is a huge challenge for Cordova,” Kramer said. “How we would address that particular challenge depends on what the citizens would like to see… I would like to reach out to all the communities and see what their ideas are, and whether they want to stay with the AMHS system or not.”
Kramer also underscored her previous leadership of NVE and her longstanding ties to Cordova.
“I think I partner well,” Kramer said. “I know the support and the value of Tribal government, and how they can integrate and partner with other local governments to make everything stronger.”
The interviews were preceded by a public meet-and-greet at the Cordova Center on Sept. 27.