On Nov. 10, the Bethel City Council welcomed a new member, while also expressing frustration at the number of vacancies that remain for some of the city’s most important positions.
Conrad “CJ” McCormick will join the city council for a one-year term. He is filling the position left by former council member Cecilia “Cece” Franko.
McCormick said that he is in favor of the sugary beverage tax, is supportive of the council’s past actions on the COVID-19 pandemic, and emphasized his youth as a unique perspective that he brings to governing the city.
Much of the remaining conversation during the council meeting centered around a chronic problem in Bethel: finding and retaining employees. Some council members were concerned, others impatient, about the city’s search for a fire chief, a finance director, and an assistant finance director. All are positions that have been open for months.
Acting City Manager Pete Williams said that the city currently has three candidates for the finance director position, which has been open since May, but he said that it may not be a good time to bring in someone new, since the city is already behind on its audit.
“My fear is that if we bring somebody in, right at this moment, like tomorrow, it would be really hard to bring them up to speed,” Williams said.
He advocated for continuing to use an outsourced accounting firm until January. That firm is costing the city around $50,000 per month.
Vice-Mayor Haley Hanson disagreed. She said that the mess in the finance department wouldn't get cleaned up until the city brought in strong leadership, and that should happen as soon as possible.
“I feel like every time it gets asked what the status of this finance director, assistant finance director, there’s some other reason we can't seem to hire someone,” Hanson said. “I'm just really frustrated by this, and I don't know how much longer this saga can continue on.”
The problems in the finance department may have led to a missed grant opportunity. The U.S. Department of Justice made a grant to the city to hire a School Resource Officer, basically a police officer stationed at the Bethel schools. But Williams said that the grant manager was so busy helping the finance department that he missed the deadline to accept the grant. He said that the city is checking to see if it can still receive the grant, even though it missed the deadline.
Then, there’s the fire chief position that has been open since July. Williams said that he is waiting for the right candidate.
“We've hired just to hire sometimes to fill a position, and it hasn't worked out for the best,” Williams said.
And then there’s the police department. While Bethel PD recently hired a new lieutenant, there are still six open positions. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the police department was nearly fully staffed. Council members asked Williams if he knew why officers were quitting. He said that because most employees don’t participate in exit interviews, he didn’t know.
Aside from staffing issues, Williams updated council members on the city’s COVID-19 measures. Williams said that the city had successfully convinced a number of restaurants in Bethel to close indoor dining during the two-week period when the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation advised the city to hunker down. He said that the businesses are being compensated with CARES Act funds, and that they would reopen indoor dining next week.