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As Mayor of Wasilla, Palin Cut Own Duties, Left Trail of Bad Blood

Shown is a menu at the Mocha Moose cafe with coffee drinks named for Republican vice presidential candidate.
Shown is a menu at the Mocha Moose cafe with coffee drinks named for Republican vice presidential candidate. (By Eric Risberg -- Associated Press)
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

WASILLA, Alaska -- On Sept. 24, 2001, Mayor Sarah Palin and the City Council held their first meeting after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The council condemned the attacks and approved a $5,000 gift to a disaster relief fund. Palin said she would try to obtain materials from both attack sites to include in the town's "Honor Garden."

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And then the council and mayor returned to their normal business: approving funds to upgrade the public well, issuing a restaurant permit and taking up a measure forbidding residents from operating bed-and-breakfasts in their homes. After a lively debate, the bed-and-breakfast measure lost, 4 to 1.

Since joining the Republican ticket, Palin has faced questions about whether she is qualified to be vice president or, if necessary, president. In response, the first-term Alaska governor and Sen. John McCain point to the executive qualifications she acquired as Wasilla mayor, a six-year stint from 1996 to 2002 that represents the bulk of her political experience.

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.


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