Mike Dingman: Mayor Sullivan can manage numbers, but not people

Mike Dingman

Sometimes you have a boss that you really click with. You see eye to eye, you have a shared vision and are working toward a common goal.

It would seem that lately that Anchorage municipal employees are not feeling that love.

It has been a rocky relationship from Day 1 between Mayor Dan Sullivan and municipal employee unions.

To be fair, Mayor Sullivan walked into a municipal budget that was broken. He had a difficult job from Day 1 balancing a budget that many felt was left in shambles and was heavy on the side of labor costs.

Much of what Mayor Sullivan has done since he assumed office in 2009 has put the city in much better shape than what he inherited. He has continually turned projected budget deficits into surpluses, has been a guardian of taxpayer dollars, kept the city budget under the tax cap and helped to provide home owners with property tax relief.

However, while doing so, he has alienated some of the city's most important people -- it's employees.

Nathaniel Herz reported in the Daily News that Sullivan said about teachers, "I think in America, it's not the first choice when people go to college, right?" He continued, "Maybe they want to go into engineering or something and realize, 'OK, that's harder than I thought it was -- I'll get a teaching degree.' "


There is almost nothing more offensive that he could have said to teachers that doesn't involve a single-fingered hand gesture.

Ironically Mayor Sullivan made these comments just ahead of Teacher Appreciation Week, which started on Monday. He likely had no clue.

Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association, told me about Sullivan's comment:

"There are talented, gifted people coming out of all kinds of programs, and there are a number of programs that are rigorous and have very high standards. So, if Mr. Sullivan is concerned about the quality of teachers across the nation, he may have a point about teacher prep courses, but he's still wrong about the motivation of educators on entering the field."

Holleman continued, "Many decide in high school that they want to pursue education, and many more choose it as a second profession to shift into, making a clear choice."

At the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce forum on Monday, Sullivan compared union membership to slavery.

It's fairly common that Republicans battle with unions; there's nothing new about that. In fact many would say that the Republicans have waged a war against unions, fighting to make as many states as they can "Right to Work" states in order to minimize the power of labor unions.

Mayor Sullivan, however, has seemed to alienate most municipal employees beyond the anticipated battle against the unions.

In an interview Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employee Association, noted to me that Mayor Sullivan didn't attend the funeral of Fire Captain Jeff Bayless in March, nor did he attend the most recent Anchorage Police Department Academy graduation.

Hsieh also points out that Sullivan's administration communicates with employees very poorly and often announces major changes late in the day on Friday via email.

Many municipal employees criticized the mayor for the way he handled Assembly Ordniance 37, which changed labor rules and is now tied up in the court system and is facing repeal via a referendum vote.

A common complaint was that the mayor drafted this ordinance in secrecy, without the input of those it would affect the most and was uninterested in public employee input after it was announced.

There is a strong argument to be made that the different actions that Mayor Sullivan made were absolutely necessary. The successes he has had in budgetary matters for the city cannot be denied. He and his financial management team have literally worked wonders and been outstanding guardians of the public dollar.

However, he has done this in a way that alienated our teachers, police officers, firefighters and other municipal employees. These dedicated public servants teach our children, keep our city safe and keep our lives moving along smoothly.

They deserve to be treated with more respect.

Mayor Sullivan may be a miracle worker when it comes to managing the budget, but he has a lot to learn in the art of managing people.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s.

Mike Dingman