Matt Claman, ending a six-month term as acting mayor, faced some extraordinary challenges in the role -- a $17 million budget shortfall on the one hand, and the prospect of quickly applying for some $50 million in federal stimulus money on the other. Moving up from Assembly chairman to acting mayor, he did a good job meeting those challenges, despite the added distraction of campaigning for a full three-year term. He hands over the job to newly elected mayor Dan Sullivan on Wednesday and will rejoin the Anchorage Assembly.
Shortly after Claman took over as mayor, the city identified a projected budget shortfall of $17 million to $20 million. It is due mostly to losses on city investment funds during the last part of 2008.
But Claman contributed to his own problem as mayor when he was on the Assembly. He voted to approve generous union contracts, despite the national economic crisis then under way. He bristled at the suggestion that the Assembly and the Begich administration should have handled the contracts differently.
As acting mayor, Claman oversaw renegotiation of contracts to eliminate raises for this year. The new deals save money in the early years, but it's unclear whether some of the renegotiated deals add even more to city budgets in the later years. He and the Assembly overcame a contentious beginning to reach a budget compromise that included postponing and reducing the raises, some layoffs and unpaid furloughs.
The budget cutbacks and the generous union contracts no doubt hurt Claman, as he finished far behind in his bid for a full term as mayor. Yet he can fairly point out that his financial decisions were validated by outside bond raters in March, when they gave Anchorage the highest rating. Claman said the bond raters indicated that the city was dealing with the shortfall in a sound manner.
Other major accomplishments:
• Claman secured full funding for the Anchorage School District. He vetoed a cut the Assembly wanted to make. The district had already had to trim its programs, such as summer school, due to rising costs. With a push on to improve the quality of education, giving the district full local funding was a wise decision.
• He showed leadership by introducing a measure to ensure equal rights based on sexual orientation. Claman proposed the ordinance that is now being filibustered by religious conservatives at the Assembly. The outcome is uncertain at this point, and it's unclear what he might have done differently to help avoid the current stalling at the Assembly, but taking a stand as mayor on this issue displayed both principle and courage.
• He and his staff quickly put together proposals required to apply for about $44 million in formula funding under the federal stimulus bill and another $6 million to $8 million in competitive grants under the same bill.
Unlike the governor, he did not go looking for ways to turn aside federal money to further his own political ambitions. He did what the city needed and went looking for every available dollar of new federal money.
Some of the stimulus spending will save money in future budgets. For example, it will buy more energy- efficient lighting for city facilities such as parking garages. It will allow better coordination of services for homeless people. It will increase resources to combat domestic violence.
During a short but troubled period, Claman demonstrated leadership skills that carried the city forward.
BOTTOM LINE: Matt Claman was more than just a caretaker mayor.