by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
City Council met on Monday night to discuss a full agenda. Despite the brisk 20 degree night, the meeting drew a crowd of listeners and those who wished to comment on various agenda items. All Council Members were in attendance. The City Administration was represented by Assistant City Manager Ron Long. City Manager Jim Hunt was not in attendance, due to the extension of his medical leave. City Clerk Brenda Ballou served in her role as parliamentarian, with City Attorney Will Earnhart seated to her left to comment on legal matters. Mayor David Squires called the meeting to order and Lieutenant Doreen Valadez led those assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Council and interested citizens had met prior to the start of the meeting in the form of a work session on reviewing the City of Seward employee grievance policy. The work session attracted a full room of attendees. Mayor Squires set ground rules at the start of the meeting that comments should address policy review, and not personal experiences. The discussion that ensued allowed for back and forth between Council, citizens and the City Administration.
Three main confusions regarding to the policy were discussed at length. One of them was what role the Human Resource (HR) department should hold with regards to grievances and complaints. Mayor Squires, when asked by Council Member Casagranda what role HR should hold in the process responded “none.” As the conversation continued, Assistant City Manager Ron Long said that HR does have a role within both the grievance and complaint processes, as a “referee,” and to “to provide the full universe of facts.”
The second confusion was around the distinction between a grievance and a complaint. The City of Seward grievance process involves multiple steps with strict timelines for each step. In recent operations, according to Finance Manager Kris Erchinger, the City has treated complaints using the same stepped process. According to Erchinger, this has created “confusion for employees.” Although a long discussion took place seeking to clarify what constitutes a grievance and what is a complaint, resolution was not reached. City Planner Jackie Wilde requested a relocation within the section of code to place the “definition [of grievance] up right underneath policy.”
The third was how to create a process that would better favor resolution at the lowest level possible. In effect, what this would mean is that employees would be encouraged to resolve their grievances with their immediate supervisor. Patrick Messmer commented that “the problem I have is that it keeps everything within the administration.” Erchinger commented that “anecdotally, [employees] don’t want to resolve an issue at the lowest level, because that’s where the tension is.”
The ninety minutes allotted was not sufficient time to finish the discussion, and Council agreed to schedule another time to continue it. During the ensuing Council meeting, Tuesday, February 13th at 5:30 pm was chosen.
The Council Session proper began with Citizen Comments, with a limit of three minutes for each person wishing to speak. Fifteen people took the opportunity to speak. The main topics covered were a youth’s concerns about recent changes in the atmosphere and operations of the Teen Rec Room, comments for and against ending City Manager Jim Hunt’s employment contract, Parks and Recreation employees celebrating their department, and celebrating the recent success of Seward Second Saturdays. Citizen Tim McDonald suggested that it is time for Seward to transition to a paid City Council, because “we don’t have leadership. We are falling apart psychologically.” Citizen Carol Griswold commented on the “phenomenal attendance” and said that she “would like policies and procedures to go online so everyone can find them.” The agenda allotted 36 minutes of time for citizen comments and it was all exhausted.
Cindy Clock gave a positive report on Chamber of Commerce recent happenings. The Chamber Awards Dinner was held on Friday, with six awards given in different categories. Clock announced that both of her Chamber staff will be attending Tom Tougas’ upcoming small business management class. Those interested in registering to attend the Tuesday evening class should contact Hertz of Seward. Clock passed around this year’s Seward Visitor Guides, with a view of Resurrection Bay on the front.
The City Manager’s report was given by Ron Long who said that the Lowell Point Road funding has been pushed through by the Governor, which should soon free up 1 million of the 1.5 million in funding to repair recent storm damage to the road. The funds will be administered through the Borough.
Council Member Casagranda asked about having a party to celebrate the completion of the Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC) breakwater’s completion, “because that is huge.” Long responded that will depend on the weather in April. Council Member Casagranda asked “do you know when Council will see 2018-2019 budget?” Long responded, “real soon.”
The City Attorney reported that he had spent 58 billable hours during the month of December on City business. Earnhart stated that the number of hours was a “little bit higher than normal, but well within the budget.” He explained that some of those hours had been spent preparing for the upcoming Alaska Public Employees Association (APEA) work session scheduled for the following night. The remainder of the hours had been spent on addressing grievance issues, especially responding to supervisors who were “frustrated with the process.” Council tasked Earnhart with evaluating a proposed bullying policy submitted by citizen Carol Griswold. Mayor Squires requested that Earnhart “address concerns about who it affects, reprisals, and include administration on those talks.”
Resolution 2018-004 is a 20 year lease of a nearly 1 acre lot with Exit Marine at SMIC. Assistant Harbormaster Matt Chase was on hand to answer questions, but aside from clarifying the length of the lease, Council had none. The lease allows for two 5 year extensions. Mayor Squires commended the City Administration for adding in a section on hazardous materials. The resolution passed unanimously, allowing Exit Marine to continue operations of their marine service business.
Resolution 2018-005 is an appropriations measure to pay for a contract with National Metering. The company was hired to change out all of the electrical meters in Seward over the summer of 2017, but the project was delayed until 2018. The adjusted costs are 11%, about half of which is due to the increased cost of doing business with each passing year. The other 5% is to accelerate the work to happen within one electric billing cycle. The crews will work 5 ten hour days instead of 4 ten hour days, allowing them to complete the work more quickly. This is anticipated to create fewer impacts on the billing department. The resolution passed unanimously. Seward residents can expect door hanger notices to appear on their homes this spring or summer to announce the start of the project.
Resolution 2018-006 approved the Port and Commerce Advisory Board (PACAB) priority list for 2018. Council Member Casagranda noted that the crane was no longer on the list. She made a motion to add the crane back in, but received no support from other Council members. The resolution passed without the crane as a priority. Later in the evening, Darryl Schaefermeyer of PACAB explained that PACAB had removed the crane from their priority list because SMIC was getting a crane. PACAB chose instead to prioritize a “wash down pad in the harbor.”
Resolution 2018-007 is an appropriations measure to transfer unexpected additional sales tax revenue to the Hospital Enterprise Fund. Seward receives 4% of the 7% sales tax collected by Borough. Of that amount, 25%, is given to this fund. In the past year, more sales tax was collected than had been anticipated. Finance Manager Kris Erchinger came back to the dais to be available for discussion. Council Member Casagranda asked about the budget reserves in Seward’s general fund. Erchinger answered that Seward Code encourages having 3-6 months worth of reserves on hand. Seward is expected to have 4.4 months of reserves on hand for 2018.
Resolution 2018-008 is a request for additional time to institute proper billing for City water users who erroneously were charged using metered rates. The mistake was made with regards to accounts where users had meters, but were not eligible for metered rates. The only metered users should be large industrial users, with variable but high usage. For residential units, water tariffs are applied based on the number of individual units. City Manager Ron Long clarified, saying “if a space is available for rent, we consider it a rental unit.” The resolution passed unanimously.
Liquor licenses for Zudy’s, the Breeze Inn, Chinooks and the Seward Brewery were all up for renewal. The City voted unanimously through either consent agenda or verbal assent to non-object to their renewals. The amounts charged for these renewals vary from $400 to $2700.
John Foutz, Utility Manager for the City of Seward, invited Council to attend a training to be held in Oregon on topics relating to managing a utility. Council Members Casagranda and Towsley volunteered to attend the training, should funding be available to send them. Discussion ensued about where the money would come from, whether from the utility budget or the Council travel or education budget. Mayor Squires closed the discussion by saying “Mr. Foutz, we’ll look at sending two people if we can afford it.”
Council wrapped up the official business with a discussion of the upcoming annual audit. Council Member Casagranda requested a look back at what was decided two years ago. From a recent review of the meeting minutes, Casagranda had found that the contract was to be renewed with the consent of Council. “That was not my recollection,” said Finance Manager Kris Erchinger. City Administration was directed to look back at the record, found in the meeting minutes.
Council closing comments were full of gratitude for the many people who had shown courage in being willing to speak publicly. “It takes guts,” said Council member Slater. Council member Towsley said that she hoped to “make Seward a better place to work.” Council member McClure said of the evening, “This is going to be an ongoing thing. I think we’re going to come to a better place.”
Citizen Comments at the end of Council meetings allow for up to five minutes of speech by each person who chooses to speak and do not require signing in. Nine Sewardites took the opportunity to express strong sentiments on topics covered during the meeting. Rebecca Ivy spoke as a third generation Sewardite and requested an internal audit be done by someone “non-biased” to “get the actual story.”
Over the course of the evening, allegations of wrongdoing were directed towards members of Council for calling a special meeting to discuss the termination of City Manager Jim Hunt’s contract. Council Member Casagranda apologized for the special meetings “that were scheduled and cancelled.” She further explained that “it is definitely time to take action” and encouraged those in support of the City Administration to call her at 907.362.2299. “I want to see the whole picture.”
The public portion of the meeting ended at 10:01pm, with Council moving into Executive Session to review the City Attorney. He is one of three employees that City Council directly hires and administers, along with the City Manager and City Clerk.
The next City Council meeting will be held at Council Chambers in City Hall on Monday, February 12th at 7pm. The meeting will be available for listening on the City website at: https://www.cityofseward.us/index.aspx?NID=912.