Petersburg’s planning commission wants the borough to pursue additional long-term parking space at Petersburg’s airport.

Commissioner Richard Burke made the request to the borough assembly Tuesday.

“The planning and zoning commission is requesting the borough acquire a lease for the property across the street from the Alaska Airlines terminal for the purpose of constructing an additional long-term parking area,” Burke told the assembly. “There’s still a lot of details that need to be worked out. How are we gonna pay for this and how are we going to administer it but at this point there’s nothing else that planning and zoning really has the power to do until we have the blessing from the assembly and we have this lease.”

The land is owned by the state of Alaska and the commission is hoping the borough could secure a low-cost or no-cost lease to build a parking lot there. The parking area could be 150 feet by 300 feet and add space for another 35 vehicles, doubling the long-term parking at the airport. Burke thought the parking area could be built for 55-65 thousand dollars.

Assembly members noted that there was overflow parking space closer to the end of the runway and questioned the proposed location and the need for a new parking lot. The assembly did not vote on that proposal Tuesday.

Assembly members did reverse a decision from May to continue holding some meetings at night this summer. Kurt Wohlhueter proposed a return to a noon start for all assembly meetings through September.

“The reason I brought this back up again is I did not take into consideration staffs, and their work schedules,” Wohlhueter said. “It just seems unfair to bring ‘em back around at 6 o’clock after they’ve put in a long day and it’s nice weather so I wanted to change my vote to a yes vote to change ‘em back to noon.”

The assembly had voted down the change earlier in May. This time the vote was unanimous to switch to a noon start time. It’s temporary, lasting only through September.

The assembly also held a closed-door executive session about the proposed reorganization of department heads in the electric department and public works. That’s in response to the June 30th retirement of Petersburg Power and Light Department superintendent Joe Nelson. Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht has proposed giving oversight of the electric department to public works director Karl Hagerman. That plan ran into opposition in May during a public discussion on the proposal.

The closed-door session Tuesday was to discuss quote “potential financial, safety and personnel matters relating to the proposed restructuring of Petersburg’s electric utility” unquote.
Petersburg Pilot publisher Ron Loesch did not think the closed-door session was justified.

“The public needs to know why the borough manager continues to push to replace the power and light superintendent with another department head that does not meet the written requirements of the position,” Loesch said. “The borough in the past has made the department head hiring process quite public and I hope that will continue.”

The assembly went ahead with a closed meeting with borough manager Steve Giesbrecht and public works director Karl Hagerman. The meeting last over an hour and the assembly took no action after. On Friday Giesbrecht sent a letter about the reorganization to the Pilot and KFSK.

Here’s the letter in full:

Citizens of the Petersburg Borough,

As your Borough Manager, my job is a combination of providing advice along with implementing the policies of your elected officials. This necessitates me taking criticism, including from those very people your elected officials (the Assembly) are trying to help. I am not whining, just stating a fact.

Today I find myself involved in a debate that clearly I started when I made a proposal to save money in some of the community’s utility departments (water, sewer, electric). The savings, about $110,000 a year, could be used to avoid future rate increases, pay for maintenance issues, or even give well deserved raises to employees in those areas who have lived through several union contracts that have frankly reduced their benefits and seen pay increases less than inflation. To the employees’ credit, they have voted for these agreements, showing their understanding of the challenges facing Alaska’s cities due to the ongoing state budget crisis.

Now the Assembly faces some serious decisions. They need to evaluate the input from myself and other staff, the public on both sides of the issue, employees concerned about change, and even the union who wants to best represent their members. If you didn’t know, this is a tough call for a group of primarily volunteers who put themselves out there trying to represent you to the best of their ability. As they should, they will take their time, ask pertinent questions, and with their peers on the Assembly, give the staff and I direction when they are ready to do so.

For the record, the proposal was to combine three of the Borough’s department heads into two positions upon the retirement of our electric superintendent Joe Nelson. Chris Cotta would have taken over Public Works, Motor Pool and Sanitation. Karl Hagerman would have assumed the role of Utility Director over Electric, Water and Wastewater. Two extremely competent leaders to handle roles that currently are handled by three folks (at least until Joe retires on June 30th). The Borough would save about $110,000 in salaries & benefits, plus another $40,000-$50,000 in recruiting costs. Clearly not small numbers, and worthy of discussion by your Assembly. As money continues to get tighter, your Assembly would prefer finding these types of expense reductions rather than raising rates or laying off employees.

Some of the concern has been related to the job duties of a Borough Department Head. In a few words, I would argue their most important duty is providing leadership, not technical expertise. Leadership includes recruiting and hiring the right people, identifying and removing road blocks to their employees’ success and coordinating with everyone involved to make sure goals and objectives are met. As large and complex organizations, the Borough’s Departments need leaders rather than technicians; managers rather than engineers; decision makers rather than analysts.

It would be naive to assume there would not be changes to our operations if this proposal was implemented. Workloads and duties may change or shift slightly. Employees in some areas, like the Electric Department, would need to get used to a new boss, but frankly from what I know of Karl Hagerman they could do no better. He is the epitome of Petersburg; hardworking, trustworthy and willing to do anything he can for our community. If I am asked to recruit someone else for this position, I may find someone who knows more about electricity, but I will likely not find a better leader.

Last, a big thank you to those citizens, businesses and employees who have voiced their support or concern in a professional manner. As I mentioned before, your Assembly has a very difficult job. The tougher the issue, the harder the decision and the more diverse the input from the community. I trust the people Petersburg elected to make these decisions, and it will be no different regardless of how they decide on this issue.


Stephen Giesbrecht
Borough Manager
Petersburg Borough