EDITORIAL: Can Anchorage’s new mayor right the city’s course?

As you drive on the New Seward Highway, you can’t miss the snow dump towering alongside the expressway between Tudor and Dowling Street. Easily 50 feet tall even after weeks of nearly constant above-freezing temperatures, the huge gray pile is a visual reminder of the winter plowing debacle that’s already receding swiftly from memory. The miniature mountain — and others like it around Anchorage — will be mostly gone by July 1, when presumptive mayor-elect Suzanne LaFrance takes office. But we hope the lesson it conveys about the importance of a municipal government that runs as it should isn’t as quickly forgotten.

In the end, the snow plowing issues of the past two winters — whether or not they were chiefly the fault of the municipal administration — were symbolic of a long list of ways that the Municipality of Anchorage under Dave Bronson no longer worked well enough for its people. A contentious relationship with the Assembly, a notoriously insular and opaque management style, widespread incompetence that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits and the departure of a startling number of longtime public servants, and a willingness to mislead and even lie to the public about its actions all built on one another until residents could no longer countenance another term for the incumbent. And so Bronson became the first mayor of Anchorage in more than 20 years to be defeated in his bid for reelection.

Barring a turnaround in remaining ballots that is rapidly approaching a mathematical impossibility, LaFrance will be sworn in as Anchorage’s next mayor on July 1. She will be tempted to assume her election is a mandate to implement her agenda — but she should temper that thought, with more than 46% of voters supporting the clearly unelectable Bronson. And of the nearly 20% of voters she picked up from other candidates between the general municipal election and the runoff, there is surely a strong proportion who voted for her despite misgivings about handing the reins of the municipal’s executive branch over to a candidate who is strongly aligned with the left-dominated majority on the Assembly. As LaFrance moves forward as mayor, she should remain mindful of both the Bronson supporters and those who supported her with some reluctance. To paraphrase the famous saying, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but LaFrance should do her best to be mayor for all of Anchorage’s residents, not just those who voted for her. Mayor Bronson’s unwillingness to do the same was ultimately a major factor in his loss — as well as many of the ongoing problems inside his administration.

LaFrance surely won’t have the same intractable relationship with Assembly members that stifled Bronson’s agenda, but she has a duty to push back, question and exercise her own independent judgment. She also has a duty to listen to conservative voices in city government and give their viewpoints full consideration. Restoring competence to city government will require compromises and consensus building — not ideological bludgeoning. If the last administration taught us anything, it is that.

And quickly restoring that competence and building that consensus is paramount because the list of serious issues on her plate is long. Having played a major role in the rejection of Bronson’s vision for a mass shelter to address Anchorage homelessness, LaFrance will be judged on how well her preferred alternative — a more decentralized approach of smaller facilities spread across neighborhoods that may not be keen on their presence — plays out. And that’s just the highest profile issue among dozens demanding the mayor-elect’s attention from her first day in office. Anchorage expects to see the homeless population shrink under the new mayor, and if it doesn’t, she — like Bronson — won’t have earned a second term.

Anchorage’s new mayor will have plenty to occupy her when her term starts this summer. And she should remember the lesson of the snow piles, too: People measure government’s competence by its ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances, not just the ones we expect. And while preparing for the unexpected may not be easy, it’s a surprisingly good metric for gauging whether our elected leaders are doing their jobs as they promised.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.