Palin Received Little Executive Experience in Wasilla

The McCain campaign has cited Palin’s executive experience in Wasilla as preparing her to be president but reviews of her actual record do not substantiate this. The Washington Post looked at her record as mayor and found this position provided little experience,with Paliln having hired a “deputy administrator to handle much of the town’s day-to-day management.”

Palin says her time as mayor taught her how to be a leader and grounded her in the real needs of voters, and her tenure revealed some of the qualities she would later display as governor: a striving ambition, a willingness to cut loose those perceived as disloyal and a populist brand of social and pro-growth conservatism.

But a visit to this former mining supply post 40 miles north of Anchorage shows the extent to which Palin’s mayoralty was also defined by what it did not include. The universe of the mayor of Wasilla is sharply circumscribed even by the standards of small towns, which limited Palin’s exposure to issues such as health care, social services, the environment and education.

Firefighting and schools, two of the main elements of local governance, are handled by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the regional government for a huge swath of central Alaska. The state has jurisdiction over social services and environmental regulations such as stormwater management for building projects.

With so many government services in the state subsidized by oil revenue, and with no need to provide for local schools, Wasilla has also made do with a very low property tax rate — cut altogether by Palin’s successor — sparing it from the tax battles that localities elsewhere must deal with. Instead, the city collects a 2 percent sales tax, the bulk of which is paid by people who live outside town and shop at its big-box stores.

The mayor oversees a police department created three years before Palin took office; the public works department; the parks and recreation department; a planning office; a library; and a small history museum. Council meetings are in the low-ceilinged basement of the town hall, a former school, and often the only residents who show up to testify are two gadflies. When Palin was mayor, the population was just 5,500.

Palin limited her duties further by hiring a deputy administrator to handle much of the town’s day-to-day management. Her top achievement as mayor was the construction of an ice rink, a project that landed in the courts and cost the city more than expected.

Arriving in office, Palin herself played down the demands of the job in response to residents who worried that her move to oust veteran officials would leave the town in the lurch. “It’s not rocket science,” Palin said, according to the town newspaper, the Frontiersman. “It’s $6 million and 53 employees.”

Further constraining City Hall’s role is the frontier philosophy that has prevailed in Wasilla, a town that was founded in 1917 as a stop along the new railroad from Anchorage to the gold mines further north. The light hand of government is evident in the town’s commercial core, essentially a haphazard succession of big-box stores, fast-food restaurants and shopping plazas.

The only semblance of an original downtown is a small collection of historic cabins that have been gathered for display in a grassy area beside a shopping center. Most residents live in ranch houses scattered through the woods. Churches, offices, stores and most other buildings are made of corrugated metal or composite materials. Standing in contrast to the utilitarian architecture are the lakes and majestic peaks.

Many of those in town were astonished to learn that Palin had been named McCain’s running mate six years after leaving City Hall.

“I was happy in a way, because it is a new beginning for the country, but also I am very worried due to her lack of experience,” said Darlene Langill, a self-described arch-conservative who served on the City Council during Palin’s first year in office.

Duane Dvorak, the city planner when Palin took office, said the mayor’s ambition had been plain to see, but added: “My sense is that this opportunity maybe came along before she was ready for it or thought it would come along.”

The article repeats many of the reports published elsewhere including her tendency to fire people who were not totally loyal to her and her attempts to ban books from the local library:

Palin took office as mayor in October 1996 with a show of force. She fired the museum director and demanded that the other department heads submit resignation letters, saying she would decide whether to accept them based on their loyalty, according to news reports at the time. She clashed with Police Chief Irl Stambaugh over his push for moving bar closing time from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. and for his opposition to state legislation to allow people to carry guns in banks and bars.

In notes that he took during a meeting in Palin’s first week on the job, Stambaugh wrote that the new mayor told him “that the NRA didn’t like me and that they wanted change,” according to the Seattle Times, which reviewed the notes at a federal archive in Seattle. Stambaugh was fired on Jan. 30, 1997, partly, the mayor said, because he had not taken seriously her request for a weekly progress report “on at least two positive examples of work that was started, how we helped the public, how we saved the City money, how we helped the state, how we helped Uncle Sam.” Stambaugh filed a wrongful-termination suit, which he lost.

Palin also differed with the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons. The Frontiersman reported at the time that Palin asked Emmons three times in her first weeks in office whether she would agree to remove controversial books. The librarian said she would not. The McCain campaign has confirmed Palin’s questions but said that she never demanded removal of any specific books. Palin also fired Emmons on Jan. 30 but reinstated her after an uproar.

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