Palin's rookie year as mayor was turbulent

CHALLENGES: Palin was re-elected in 1999 after surviving a stormy start.

September 11, 2008 

At last week's national convention, Republicans fought to turn a perceived weakness of their vice-presidential nominee -- a lack of experience -- into a signature strength, saying Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had more executive experience than both members of the Democratic ticket combined.

Six years of her executive experience came as mayor of Wasilla, a city north of Anchorage that had about 5,000 residents when she took over. As much of Palin's hometown rallies with pride around her, 1,400 miles away -- in a National Archives warehouse in Seattle -- three boxes of documents help capture the quality of her mayoral experience.

These records, from a federal wrongful-termination lawsuit, include memos to administrators and personnel records stamped "confidential." The documents, combined with accounts from her hometown newspaper, show how Palin's first year as mayor could easily have been her last.

She became embroiled in personnel challenges, a thwarted attempt to pack the City Council and a standoff with her local newspaper. Her first months were so contentious and polarizing that critics started talking recall.

Her first months also exposed threads that would later become patterns -- friends become enemies, enemies become friends and questions get raised about why she fired this person or that person.

But the situation calmed, and rather than being recalled, Palin was re-elected. She later acknowledged, "I grew tremendously in my early months as mayor."

POPULIST APPEAL

When Palin ran for mayor in 1996, she was 32 years old and a four-year veteran of the City Council. Her opponent, John Stein, had been mayor for nine years.

Stein, then 52, had a bachelor's degree in public management. In a questionnaire published in the local newspaper, he said his hobbies included shooting targets, gardening, photography and reading. Palin had a degree in journalism and political science. She listed her hobbies as: "Slaying salmon, hunting, 10-mile runs, the Iron Dog."

Asked about issues facing Wasilla, Stein wrote about "construction of a city collector street grid" and an "architectural planning process."

Palin wrote that people asking City Hall for help encountered "complacency, inaction and even total disregard." She decried the town's "current tax-and-spend mentality" and its "stale leadership." She wrote: "New administration finally allows new input, fresh ideas and ENERGY to work with the public to shape this city!!!"

To five of the city's department heads -- including Irl Stambaugh, the police chief -- Palin's characterization was unfair. They wrote to the local paper, saying: "If these allegations were true, and they most certainly are not, why does Ms. Palin, as a member of the city council, allow the practices to continue?"

To Stein, this campaign raised issues that had no bearing on local government. He would marvel at how abortion became an issue -- he was labeled pro-abortion -- and how some people noted that his wife's last name differed from his.

In the October 1996 election, Palin collected 616 votes -- 58 percent of the total. "It's a new direction," she told the Frontiersman, the local newspaper.

LOOKING FOR LOYALTY

Right after the election, speculation set in about the fate of Wasilla's six department heads.

Stambaugh, the police chief, had supported Stein during the campaign. He'd also negotiated a contract with the previous mayor saying he could be fired only "for cause."

Stambaugh became the town's first police chief in 1993. He previously had been a top police officer in Anchorage.

In the summer of 1996, Stambaugh encouraged Wasilla and the Mat-Su Borough to pass ordinances requiring bars and liquor stores to close earlier than 5 a.m., the latest hour allowed by state law. Because bars in Anchorage closed earlier, some people drove to Wasilla to keep drinking, endangering themselves and others, Stambaugh argued.

The borough's leadership rejected the proposal, and afterward so did the Wasilla City Council, by a 3-2 vote. Palin was in the majority.

Many in the liquor industry backed Palin's mayoral bid that year.

Stambaugh also opposed a state proposal to lift some restrictions on Alaska's concealed-weapons law. It would have allowed concealed weapons in banks and even bars. Stambaugh called the idea "ridiculous."

The week after Palin was elected, Stambaugh asked her if he still had a job. "She answered that she was elected to make change," according to notes that Stambaugh kept. "She went on to state that the NRA didn't like me and that they wanted change."

The day Palin took office, she told Stambaugh she wanted him to stay on provided he would support her as mayor, his notes say. He agreed. She also asked him to drop the issue of bar hours. He agreed to that. On this day, Palin fired the city's museum director, one of the department heads.

Ten days later, Palin wrote to all the department heads, including Stambaugh, asking for letters of resignation. She said she would then decide which to accept. When Stambaugh declined to provide one -- pointing to his contract -- Palin replied in a letter: "I will expect your loyalty."

PERSONAL TOUCH

Palin kept a jar with the names of Wasilla residents. Once a week she pulled a name from it and picked up the phone. How's the city doing? she'd ask.

She wanted the police department to be just as friendly. On Dec. 17, 1996, she wrote to Stambaugh, saying some residents were concerned at how officers stayed in their cars while patrolling. "Most businesses would enjoy having them stop in, visit with patrons, drink a cup of coffee, eat a meal, in general spread some sense of belonging and real down-home community belonging," Palin wrote.

Stambaugh passed the word down, posting the memo with a handwritten note: "All employees. FYI. Please help with this."

A Palin assistant gave Stambaugh a letter from the mayor on Jan. 30 telling him he was fired.

"I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the City of Wasilla," she wrote.

Palin told Stambaugh's lawyer that the police chief, when meeting with her in private, "instead of engaging in interactive conversation with me, you gave me short, uncommunicative answers and then you would sit there and stare at me in silence with a very stern look, like you were trying to intimidate me."

DRAMATIC YEAR

For Palin, firing Stambaugh was only part of the drama that unfolded in her first months as mayor.

Palin twice asked the librarian what she thought about banning books, to which the librarian responded it was a lousy idea she couldn't go along with. Later, Palin told the local paper that any questions she'd raised about censorship were only "rhetorical."

Palin put in place what the local paper called a gag order, prohibiting top city employees from talking to reporters unless she cleared it first.

After Stambaugh and the museum director were fired, two of the four remaining department heads quit. One, the public-works director, accused Palin of undermining him by meeting secretly with contractors and employees.

When three women who worked at the city's museum were asked to decide which one should be let go, all three quit.

Palin tried to fill two vacancies on the City Council herself, even though an ordinance said that wasn't her prerogative. The city attorney stopped Palin.

The Frontiersman condemned Palin's philosophy "that either we are with her or against her." The newspaper accused Palin of mistaking the 616 votes she received as a "coronation."

Some residents met and talked recall.

By the end of Palin's first year as mayor, things had settled down and talk of recall had faded. She was re-elected mayor in 1999. Stambaugh lost his wrongful-termination lawsuit in 2000. A federal judge said Palin had the right to let him go.

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