The City of Palmer passed the 2013 budget.
The $14-plus million budget includes a new 80/20 health insurance split for employees who until now got free coverage. The admittedly sweet deal on health insurance made up for lower wages and helped the city retain staff.
But instead of employee retention, the staffing issue that dominated conversation at last week’s budget meeting was Mayor DeLena Johnson’s assistant.
Make that former assistant.
After an hour of sometimes bitter discussion, the council voted to ax Johnson’s part-time assistant on partisan lines. Yes, the Palmer City Council is a nonpartisan entity. But on this body, and most like it, certain issues reveal political divides. And there is an election coming up in the fall.
Johnson said the position meant that, for the first time, someone answered the phone on behalf of the mayor. The mayor said the position wasn’t about improving communication between her office and the council as much as it was about adding an element of professionalism to her efforts as the city’s lobbyist in Juneau.
The largely self-described conservatives on the council - Edna DeVries, Kathrine Vanover, Linda Combs, Richard Best - voted to ax the assistant. Best raised the motion; he opposed the position last year.
“This is not about personalities,” Best said during the Dec. 11 meeting. He went on to describe the assistant as “an experiment last year to give the mayor an assistant to improve communication with the council. I think communication over the past year has gotten worse.”
That thought - the anti-assistant sentiment wasn’t personal, the degraded level of communication between mayor and council - was echoed by the four councilors. Several also questioned the city attorney on the legal merits of the position. City code dictates the mayor “shall not direct the appointment or removal of any administration officer or employee of the city.” The attorney at one point said the assistant, who technically falls under the supervision of the city clerk, didn’t violate those provisions.
The opposing members remained unconvinced.
“Communication between the mayor’s office and this council has disintegrated,” Vanover said. “I’m not blaming that on the mayor. It is just a fact and it bothers me. I hate, and I will say this in public, infighting.”
She went on to point out that city employes are being asked to give up their generous health insurance deal. “What have we as a council given up?” she asked. “This is our give-up. Not because the mayor doesn’t deserve it because that’s not true but we all have to contribute.”
Johnson was not pleased.
“I have watched this council, probably two or three people, spend a lot of time on managing the mayor’s office,” she said. “There’s probably a lot more interest in managing the mayor’s office than managing the manager. I see this as a good position doing good things ... I never asked for an assistant. I asked for assistance.”
Deputy mayor Brad Hanson scolded his fellow councilors. He said the creation of the mayor’s assistant wasn’t just to improve communication but “fulfill other inadequacies within the city.”
“It appears to me it’s more political than it is professional,” Hanson said. “I hope we can put some ill feelings, some unproductive activities, some undermining of one another to bed so we can deal with issues that are far more pressing.”
-- Zaz Hollander