As Homka steps in as Unalaska’s city manager, priorities include hiring, stability at City Hall
The Unalaska City Council recently hired Bil Homka as city manager.
The former planning director previously served as both assistant and acting city manager. Now, he’s stepping into the role in a permanent capacity, after it’s been vacant for about a year.
Homka said there’s plenty of work to catch up on. He sat down with KUCB’s Laura Kraegel to talk about the city’s priorities — and his leadership style at City Hall.
BIL HOMKA: I think it’s shocking for some people, because I’m usually happy go lucky. You know, I smile, I laugh, do all that. But I’m really a serious person. When it comes down to getting things done, there’s accountability. I want to make sure if, you know, we’re supposed to be doing A through J, we’re doing that. And if we’re not, why are we not doing it? There’s just measures that we want to make sure we’re doing, in terms of human resource improvements, making sure things are being documented, making sure reviews are being done appropriately. So that if there are issues, we flush them out with our employees early, not at a time of a review. It’s just making sure that — this is a public entity. If we were a business, we’d certainly be doing that. And this is the public tax money. So we have to make sure people are getting what they’re paying for. And that’s pretty serious to me. So I hope no one will find that as a surprise.
KUCB: And like you say, the city is a public entity, of course. So what about the wider community? Beyond your leadership style with the folks who work at City Hall, what do you want to say to the community about how you’re approaching your job as city manager?
HOMKA: I’m not ready to communicate on that yet. I want to get my bearings a little more to see where we’re going and not make any kinds of false promises or goals. I think stability is the number one thing that they should be looking for. I don’t like when we use the staffing shortage as an excuse for not being able to get something accomplished. So I won’t continually use that. Or COVID. You see it in the news all the time. And we’re not really looking for excuses of why we couldn’t get something done. We’re looking for paths and resources to get things done. And so I think that’s probably a shift that most communities have to make after they go through some of these types of times. So, ask me in a few months.
KUCB: We definitely will. What else can you tell me about the city’s priorities? Because you mention the ongoing staffing shortage. It’s budget season. There’s an upcoming city lobbying trip to Juneau, the state capital. So what all are you focusing on?
HOMKA: Externally, we’re dealing with the Captains Bay Road project. There’s a lot of focus on that — not just from the city, but also with our trilateral group. I mean, we’re working together with Trident [Seafoods] to try and make sure we can secure funding, whether it be through grant funding, through shared kind of resources in terms of how to get that project done. Because at $60 — seems to change every year — but say, $60 million-plus, that’s a really tall order. And it’s been on the books for several years, but this is probably the most momentum that we’ve had. So that’s a priority. Our Bobby Storrs [Small Boat Harbor] project — that’s coming up. We need to replace all of those floats. And certainly, the channel dredging — that’s been funded. We’ve got our match for that project. So those are some big ones, and those I’m familiar with, because the planning director and the planning office did the CMMP [capital and major maintenance plan]. Internally, I’d like to make sure that we fill positions that we have vacant. And we’re looking at that individually, position by position, what the job announcements or job descriptions are. So we’re doing some adjustments there to try and make sure that the city’s staff will be robust.
KUCB: And how is that going? Because I think everyone in Unalaska — around the state, around the country, really — has heard just how hard it is to hire and recruit right now. For all types of jobs. So how many city vacancies are there at the moment? I know the number was up to 20-plus at one point.
HOMKA: It was up to 30 at one point.
KUCB: It was up to 30.
HOMKA: Thirtysomething. That song — two steps forward, three steps back — kept going through my mind. We had a lot of hiring, and then people leaving. You couldn’t even get — you had to pick a point in time. It’s down now. I want to say there were 16 [vacancies] at the last city manager report I gave council. A couple of things come to mind. One, we’re still way behind in making online applications something that is a reality for us. And we have that capacity through some software. It’s just that buying software doesn’t solve the problem — you have to implement it, it has to get along with other software. So applicant tracking, applicant communications — all that can be done with software we already have. It just for some reason hasn’t been implemented. So one of the things that I plan on doing is bringing out that [software] corporation to help train different departments that need training. Right now, you have to print it off, and you have to hand write the application and scan it into a PDF and send it to us. And we would have people then entering that into digital form. So it’s just not helpful that we haven’t updated that. And that would help greatly with some of the backflow as we move forward.
KUCB: Definitely. So you’ll be working on making that process more modern, more streamlined, as you work on filling those roughly 16 remaining city positions. How many of those are director-level positions — those roles at the top of city departments? I ask, in part, because I understand Interim Fire Chief Ben Knowles recently accepted the permanent fire chief position.
HOMKA: Ben has signed his agreement. Starts, I think, June 1. So that’ll fill the fire position. And I have a police chief I’m looking for. A finance director. We still have an interim finance director. Planning director. Assistant city manager. Public works director. We’ve got Scott Brown — he’s in there as acting [director of public works]. He’s doing a really good job. Five [director-level vacancies]. Five, because Ben would have been six.
KUCB: So that’s five open director positions out of 11. There’s progress being made, but still a ways to go. With quite a lot on your plate, and the city’s plate, what will it mean to have former city manager Chris Hladick available to you to help out? The City Council has contracted him as a consultant for a few months to be a resource to you and to the city. What kinds of issues do you think it’ll be most useful to work with him on?
HOMKA: So the part that I haven’t gotten a good opportunity to get acquainted with is the lobbying aspect. The political realities in Alaska, who the names are, who to work with on position A, issue B. We have those resources here. We have, you know, our template. We’ve got federal consultants, if you will. We’ve got a state consultant — I should say lobbyists. And how to work with them to achieve what we need to convey to our elected officials — that’s work that he’s going to be helping me with. And then certainly helping me with — I called him the other day about something. Like, ‘What would you do with this? I’m not really sure.’ Just it’s nice to have that. It’s nice to know that he’s there. Council made it clear that that’s an investment in me, and I do appreciate that. I recognize that right away.