Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics From One Mayor to Another: Has Anchorage Lost Its Vision?

From One Mayor to Another: Has Anchorage Lost Its Vision?


At last week’s State of Our City forum, former Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom’s offered a stark criticism of the municipality’s current trajectory. The sentiment was greeted by a lot of nodding heads scattered throughout the Wendler Middle School auditorium.
A marathon assembly meeting the following day made his rather dire prescription prescient.

The thing that I miss right now in the city of Anchorage is, I don’t get a sense of momentum. I don’t get a sense of direction. I don’t get a sense of vision for the city, and where things are happening, and I haven’t for quite awhile.

Mystrom described the job of mayor as ably performing four functions: create a vision, develop a strategy to implement that vision, involve the community every step of the way, and offer consistent motivation until the job gets done.

I averaged, during the course of the time I was mayor, 168 speeches a year, talking to people. And that is so important to get that out, to reach out and to make sure you’re touching the people out there.

That was last Monday. On Tuesday the Assembly passed current-mayor Dan Sullivan’s 2014 operating budget. It is a budget that typifies Mystrom’s frustration.
Over the past year, the Mayor Sullivan has floated some lofty ideas. A bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. A massive multi-billion dollar effort to Ship Creek into a waterfront neighborhood. A goal to make Anchorage the number one city in the United States to live, work, and play by 2025.
But for a proposal to be seen as a “vision,” it kind of needs to start as a budget item. None of those items met the benchmark this year, though they did sign a resolution officially backing the latter.
That’ll fix it.
“[Being a successful mayor requires] lining up the forces,” Mystrom told Monday’s crowd.

And that includes the people, that includes community councils, it includes business people, it includes anybody who wants to be involved in Anchorage – lining up the forces to make that strategy happen.

Mystrom’s successor, George Wuerch, made similar comments when touting the “Anchorage 2020” plan that passed under his watch. The plan was an award-winning public process that, neighborhood by neighborhood, set guidelines (of, by, and for Anchorage residents) regarding how the municipality would be developed. Wuerch described the effort as a “guide for elected and appointed officials as they deliberate community development issues.”
Sullivan follows a different rule book. He reopened the issue this past February by locking the plan in a room with former assemblyman Dan Coffey and asking for edits. Coffey was accommodating.
The final bill was passed after stripping many of the guidelines enacted by the decade long public process. “I think the industry can police itself,” Eagle River Assemblyman Bill Starr said at the time, echoing the administration’s position.
The approach recommended by Mystrom – a scenario where an inclusive public process produces what ultimately becomes public policy – is antithetical to the current administration. Sullivan has generally favored dropping prepackaged policy on the public’s heads unannounced, unexpected, and often un-vetted. The labor law rewrite (now subject to a public referendum and being litigated over in court as Sullivan tries to delay the vote) was announced without the input of the public unions it affected. Testimony was shut down before many residents could add their voices to the record. The proposal to move Karluk Manor to Mountain View was announced at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon before anyone mentioned it to the Mountain View Community Council. The same approach was taken with the announcement of the now defunct homeless campus proposal for West Anchorage.
The public process has been used by the administration selectively. Compare the recent sales tax “community dialogues” to the above-mentioned homeless campus.
Sullivan has pushed for a sales tax to replace, dollar for dollar, property taxes. The move wouldn’t add any new revenue to fund services; it would just switch who shoulders the brunt of the tax burden from home owners to renters.
The mayor began the public process by asking a question: should we change our tax structure? He then orchestrated a giant sales pitch, photo op, and predetermined answer in the affirmative.
If he was comparably serious about a homeless campus, he would have applied the same strategy: engage the public, ask a question – How do we alleviate the growing problem of homelessness – and then present the answer you want them to arrive at.
He didn’t. So, when people read the announcement in the media, West Anchorage recoiled from sticker shock and rejected the idea.
The mayor never wanted a homeless campus. He just wanted it to look like he tried.
Mystrom went a different route when he worked at city hall.
“I averaged, during the course of the time I was mayor, 168 speeches a year, talking to people,” he told Monday night’s audience. “And that is so important to get that out, to reach out and to make sure you’re touching the people out there.”
He didn’t have a choice. By the time Mystrom took office in 1994, crime had spiked to a 20-year high. As mayor, he brought the heads of the school district, the FBI, the state supreme court, and created a community action targeting crime. Whether causal or correlational, from 1995 to 2000, violent crime had dropped 39 percent.
One can only imagine the frustration he must feel watching the violent crime rate return to 1994 numbers.
“The current mayor out to really think about this, I think,” Mystrom said through clenched teeth. “And that lesson is people in Anchorage don’t buy into a solution until they first buy into a problem.”
As long as Sullivan concentrates all of Anchorage’s problems downtown, the lack of vision, direction, motivation, and public process continue unnoticed. The population growth around the municipality’s edges largely avoid feeling the direct sting of the crime, homelessness, and poverty endured by Fairview and Mountain view. The mayor says that current current funding levels are sufficient (they aren’t), and, as Mystrom highlights, the public changes the topic to hone in on other priorities. 
A proposal to hire a municipal homeless coordinator was nixed on Tuesday night, and the public tapped their feet through it, anxious to talk about how much they love tennis.
Watch the full speech:


  1. I would love to live in a community where I could see the mayor more actively involved. I hardly hear of Mayor Sullivan doing much of anything in Anchorage outside of his basic role.