Sarah Palin's first year as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, could easily have been her last as she became embroiled in personnel challenges, a thwarted attempt to pack the City Council and a bitter standoff with her local newspaper. Her first months were so contentious and polarizing that critics started talking of a recall.
At last week’s national convention, Republicans fought to turn a perceived weakness of their vice-presidential nominee — a lack of experience — into a signature strength, saying Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had more executive experience than both members of the Democratic ticket combined.
Six years of her executive experience came as mayor of Wasilla, a city north of Anchorage that had about 5,000 residents when she took over. As much of Palin’s hometown rallies with pride around her, 1,400 miles away — in a National Archives warehouse in Seattle — three boxes of documents help capture the quality of her mayoral experience.
These records, from a federal wrongful-termination lawsuit, include the minutiae of municipal governance, with memos to administrators and personnel records stamped “confidential.” The documents, combined with accounts from her hometown newspaper, show how Palin’s first year as mayor could easily have been her last.
She became embroiled in personnel challenges, a thwarted attempt to pack the City Council and a standoff with her local newspaper. Her first months were so contentious and polarizing that critics started talking recall.
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Her first months also exposed threads that would later become patterns — friends become enemies, enemies become friends and questions get raised about why she fired this person or that person.
But the situation calmed, and rather than being recalled, Palin was re-elected. She later acknowledged, “I grew tremendously in my early months as mayor.”
An unusual campaign
When Palin ran for mayor in the fall of 1996, she was 32 years old and a four-year veteran of the City Council. Her opponent, John Stein, had been mayor for nine years.
Stein, then 52, had a bachelor’s degree in public management. In a questionnaire published in the local newspaper, he said his hobbies included shooting targets, gardening, photography and reading. Palin had a degree in journalism and political science. She listed her hobbies as: “Slaying salmon, hunting, 10-mile runs, the Iron Dog.”
Asked about issues facing Wasilla, Stein wrote about “construction of a city collector street grid” and an “architectural planning process.”
Palin wrote that people asking City Hall for help encountered “complacency, inaction and even total disregard.” She decried the town’s “current tax-and-spend mentality” and its “stale leadership.” She wrote: “New administration finally allows new input, fresh ideas and ENERGY to work with the public to shape this city!!!”
To five of the city’s department heads — including Irl Stambaugh, the police chief — Palin’s characterization was unfair. They wrote to the local paper, saying: “If these allegations were true, and they most certainly are not, why does Ms. Palin, as a member of the city council, allow the practices to continue? Has she forgotten that it is the city council’s responsibility to set policy and it is the administration’s obligation to enforce that policy?”
In Alaska, municipal elections are officially nonpartisan. State law tries to distance local government from the machinations of political parties.
A Palin campaign ad displayed the slogan, “Positively Sarah.” “Endorsed by the NRA,” it said. The ad encouraged people to vote for “Conservative, More Efficient Government,” and called Palin “ENERGETIC … DETERMINED … POSITIVE.”
The ad pictured Palin with four state lawmakers — all Republicans, pledging their support. More than 100 other supporters were also listed, including the owners of the Mug Shot Saloon and the Wasilla Bar, two taverns that stayed open until 4 or 5 a.m.
To Stein, the three-term mayor, this campaign had unusual overtones, raising issues that had no bearing on local government. He would marvel at how abortion became an issue — he was labeled pro-abortion — and how some people noted that his wife’s last name differed from his. He later noted how Palin’s backers included what he called the “Liquor Cabinet” and Wasilla’s religious conservatives.
In October 1996, about a third of Wasilla’s registered voters went to the polls. Palin collected 616 votes — 58 percent of the total. “It’s a new direction,” she told the Frontiersman, the local newspaper.
Afterward, a TV station called her Wasilla’s “first Christian mayor.” This prompted a letter from Stein, saying: “Really?” He listed eight previous mayors, all Christian, and added: “With a name like ‘Stein’ some suspected that I must be a non-Christian, have non-Christian blood or at least have sympathized with a non-Christian sometime in my career. I’m proud of such a reputation but I, my family and forbearers are of the Christian persuasion, too.”
Department heads’ fate
Right after the election, speculation set in about the fate of Wasilla’s six department heads, who served at the pleasure of the mayor.
Stambaugh, the police chief, had supported Stein during the campaign. He’d also negotiated a contract with the previous mayor saying he could be fired only “for cause.” But whether a new mayor had to honor that clause was in doubt.
Stambaugh had been appointed in 1993, back when the town’s police department was first created. Before that he had been a cop for 22 years in Anchorage, working his way up to the metropolitan police department’s third-highest post.
In 1994, Wasilla nominated Stambaugh to be Alaska’s Municipal Employee of the Year. He started with nothing, but, within a year, assembled a trained staff of eight officers who would record 206 drunken-driving arrests.
In the summer of 1996, Stambaugh encouraged Wasilla and the Mat-Su Borough, the regional governing body, to pass ordinances requiring bars and liquor stores to close earlier than 5 a.m., the latest hour allowed by state law. Because bars in Anchorage closed earlier, some people drove to Wasilla to keep drinking, endangering themselves and others, Stambaugh argued. He wanted Wasilla’s bars to close at 2:30 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.
The idea’s supporters talked of reducing roadway fatalities. Opponents talked of an encroachment on their individual freedom. The borough’s leadership rejected the proposal, and afterward so did the Wasilla City Council, by a 3-2 vote. Palin was in the majority.
This same year, Stambaugh opposed a state legislative proposal to lift some restrictions on Alaska’s concealed-weapons law. Among other things, it would allow concealed weapons in banks and even bars. Stambaugh called the idea “ridiculous.” “Bars, guns and booze don’t mix under any circumstances,” he would later say.
The proposal passed the legislature, but Stambaugh and others asked Alaska’s governor, Tony Knowles, to veto it. The governor did — to the dismay of the bill’s proponents, which included the NRA.
The police chief
The week after Palin was elected, Stambaugh asked her if he still had a job. “She answered that she was elected to make change,” according to notes of Stambaugh’s that he kept. “She went on to state that the NRA didn’t like me and that they wanted change.”
In this meeting, his notes say, Palin said she’d heard that Stambaugh and the town librarian had been seen at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting “acting sad and unhappy.” Stambaugh told her that wasn’t true. In fact, they’d been making jokes.
A couple of days later, a story in the Frontiersman noted that Palin was saying personnel changes were likely. “When asked how she would run the city without experienced department heads, she responded, ‘It’s not rocket science. It’s $6 million and 53 employees.’ “
The day Palin took office, she told Stambaugh she wanted him to stay on provided he would support her as mayor, his notes say. He agreed. She also asked him to drop the issue of bar hours. He agreed to that, too. On this day, Palin fired the city’s museum director, one of the department heads.
Ten days later, Palin wrote to all the department heads, including Stambaugh, asking for letters of resignation. She said she would then decide which to accept. When Stambaugh declined to provide one — pointing to his contract — Palin replied in a letter: “I will expect your loyalty.”
Stambaugh was 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. Because he’d heard that Palin had felt intimidated by him during a meeting, he made sure to sit when talking with her, and to use a soothing voice. By early December, things had calmed down, and Stambaugh felt the threat of being fired had passed.
“Positive” weekly reports
Palin kept a jar with the names of Wasilla residents. Once a week she pulled a name from it and picked up the phone. How’s the city doing? she’d ask.
She wanted the police department to be just as friendly. On Dec. 17, 1996, she wrote to Stambaugh, saying some residents were concerned at how officers stayed in their cars while patrolling. “Most businesses would enjoy having them stop in, visit with patrons, drink a cup of coffee, eat a meal, in general spread some sense of belonging and real down-home community belonging,” Palin wrote.
Stambaugh passed the word down, posting the memo with a handwritten note: “All employees. FYI. Please help with this.”
The day after Christmas, Palin sent a memo to Stambaugh and the other department heads. “What a wonderful time of year!” she wrote. “As we enter 1997, let’s take this opportunity to start the new year off on a positive note.”
From now on, the memo said, Palin wanted each department head to send her a weekly report, due Friday, with an “update of activities” and “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, how we made operations run smoother, or safer, or more efficient.”
“Please use numbers when appropriate,” she wrote, adding: “Staff, I believe if we look for the positive, that is what we will ultimately find. Conversely, look for the negative and you’ll find that, too. … Wasilla has tremendous assets and opportunities and we can all choose to be a part of contributing to the improvement of our community … or not. I encourage you to choose the prior because the train is a’moving forward!”
“I realize this is an added chore, but at least it’s a positive one!” she wrote.
Stambaugh already provided daily reports. He already provided a monthly report. He already attended staff meetings with Palin and other department heads every second and fourth Tuesday at 10 a.m.
But on Jan. 10 — the date that Palin’s memo set for receipt of the first weekly memo — Stambaugh complied with the mayor’s directive, sending her a one-page memo with lots of numbers and not a hint of sarcasm. “Eleven accidents with no injuries were reported … six business alarms were reported … three reports of fireworks complaints were received … four juveniles were cited for minor consuming.”
The police chief also relayed two pieces of happy news. The department “assisted 14 individuals by giving them rides or helping them with their vehicles during the cold spell we experienced,” his memo said. Plus, the chief wrote, he was “pleased to report” that Officer Sonerholm was able to return to full duty — “even though he is still having some problems with his knee.”
Stambaugh kept the reports coming. But on Jan. 30, he was on the phone with the town’s librarian — who said she’d just been fired — when an assistant of Palin’s walked up and gave Stambaugh an envelope. Inside was a letter from Palin, saying Stambaugh, too, was fired.
“I do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the City of Wasilla,” she wrote.
His firing was to be effective Feb. 13.
Stambaugh contacted a lawyer, who pressed Palin for details on how the chief’s support had fallen short. So the mayor listed examples. Stambaugh had “made it clear” in a staff meeting that he believed the weekly memo was a waste of time because the same information was already available in other reports, she wrote.
“I wanted you to extract the relevant information because I wanted your views as to what you thought was positive. Although you eventually complied with my request, your response was disappointing.”
Also: “When I met with you in private, instead of engaging in interactive conversation with me, you gave me short, uncommunicative answers and then you would sit there and stare at me in silence with a very stern look, like you were trying to intimidate me.”
She wrote: “You know when you have someone’s full support, and you know when you do not.”
Stambaugh sued Palin and the city, saying he had been wrongfully fired.
Drama and backlash
For Palin, the firing of Stambaugh was only part of the drama that unfolded in her first months as mayor. The Frontiersman and Anchorage Daily News wrote one story after another about the turmoil.
After notifying the librarian that she was fired, Palin backtracked and decided to keep her on. Palin had twice asked this librarian what she thought about banning books, to which the librarian responded it was a lousy idea, one she wouldn’t go along with. Later, Palin told the local paper that any questions she’d raised about censorship were only “rhetorical.”
Palin put in place what the local paper called a gag order, prohibiting top city employees from talking to reporters unless she cleared it first.
After Stambaugh and the museum director were fired, two of the four remaining department heads quit. One, the public-works director, accused Palin of undermining him by meeting secretly with contractors and employees.
When three women who worked at the city’s museum were asked to decide among themselves which one should be let go, all three quit.
Palin tried to fill two vacancies on the City Council herself, even though an ordinance said that wasn’t her prerogative. It was the council’s. After the city attorney stopped Palin, the mayor said she’d merely engaged in a ploy. “It was brilliant maneuvering I had to do to deal with the impasse,” she told the Frontiersman.
The Frontiersman ran blistering editorials, condemning Palin’s philosophy “that either we are with her or against her.” The newspaper accused Palin of mistaking the 616 votes she received as a “coronation.”
“Wasilla residents have been subjected to attempts to unlawfully appoint council members, statements that have been shown to be patently untrue, unrepentant backpedaling, and incessant whining that her only enemies are the press and a few disgruntled supporters of Mayor Stein. … Palin promised to change the status quo, but at every turn we find hints of cronyism and political maneuvering. We see a woman who has long since surrendered her ideals to a political machine.”
The newspaper’s readers chimed in. “Mayor Sarah Palin behaves like a petulant, spoiled teenager,” wrote a woman who ran a flower shop. A tool-and-die maker defended Palin, writing, “We didn’t want ‘business as usual.’ “
Some residents met and talked recall.
Moving beyond Wasilla
By the end of Palin’s first year as mayor, things had settled down and talk of recall had faded. She was re-elected mayor in 1999. In 2002 she ran for lieutenant governor and lost. In 2006 she ran for governor and won.
As governor, she fired the state’s public-safety commissioner under circumstances that are now the subject of an ethics investigation.
Lyda Green, the Republican president of the Alaska State Senate, had been one of Palin’s biggest supporters back in 1996. But she’s a fan no more. Green recently told the Anchorage Daily News: “She’s not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?”
But Palin had won other folks over. When she ran for governor, one opponent ran an ad quoting one of those blistering editorials from the Frontiersman. Vicki Naegele, the former managing editor who wrote the editorial, defended Palin.
“As a community newspaper, we held her feet to the fire,” Naegele wrote. “This was one of those scorching editorials. I remember the need for such harsh words diminished as the months wore on.”
Palin herself said at that time: “If nothing else, the old Frontiersman editorial points out the importance of administrative experience at the chief executive level. I grew tremendously in my early months as mayor, managing the fastest-growing city in the state, and I turned my critics around.”
On Saturday, Maria Comella, spokeswoman for Palin’s campaign for vice president, said of Palin’s first year as mayor: “The bottom line was that this was Gov. Palin challenging the good-old-boy network and shaking up the status quo to get things done.”
Stambaugh’s wrongful-termination lawsuit was thrown out in 2000 by a federal judge, who said that even if Palin’s reasons for firing him were political, she had that right.
After he was fired, Stambaugh spent a year in Bosnia, training police officers under the auspices of the United Nations. He’s now retired.
Hal Bernton reported from Wasilla and Anchorage and Ken Armstrong from Seattle.
Bernton: 503-292-1016 or firstname.lastname@example.org