Mark Lynch is the city manager of Whittier, Alaska, a harbor city with about 250 residents. Whittier is a former military installation just southeast of Anchorage and is known for having the majority of its population living in a single building called Begich Towers. Another condominium building called Whittier Manor houses about 25 percent of city residents, along with several private homes, and a few residents who live onboard boats docked in the harbor.
Mark is also president of the Alaska Municipal Management Association (AMMA). ICMA recently signed a new affiliate agreement with AMMA.
Throughout his career, Mark has been a small-business owner, a city councilor and mayor in a small Kansas town, the information technology director for Illinois State University, and a city manager in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Alaska. Since joining the municipal management profession in 2006, he has maintained membership in the respective state associations and ICMA, while also serving on various boards and commissions devoted to economic development, social services, and regional planning.
What are the greatest challenges working in Alaska?
Being away from family and friends, the majority of whom live in the lower 48.
How large is your city staff, and what are the largest areas of operation for the municipal government there, given the unique setting, history, and circumstances of your city?
We have about 20 full-time employees and 10 or so temps in the summer. This may not seem like much until you realize that our city has a visiting population of about 700,000 people a year, primarily in the form of tourists. Most of this happens in four months during the summer. Our harbor, public works, and public safety departments are all heavily loaded during those months.
Before your current position, you spent most of your career in the Midwest, but you had also previously had one position in Alaska. What took you back to Alaska?
In addition to the beauty of Alaska and the moderate climate (contrary to popular belief, it’s usually warmer here in winter and cooler in summer than in the Midwest), managers in Alaska are generally more respected than what I have found in my previous experience.
Your career has varied across many sectors, and you have held positions across all forms of local government. What led you to local government?
In the 1980s I was operating a small business in Kansas. I had no intention of getting involved in politics, but I was approached by local residents to run for city council. I did that and won. Two years later, I was asked to run for mayor by the retiring mayor, and again I was elected. This started my interest in local government. When I moved back to Illinois in 1996 to care for my aging mother, I enrolled in college and received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2000, and a master’s in public administration in 2005.
As someone who previously served in an elected position on a council and as a mayor, what advice would you offer to other city managers given that experience?
I find that one of the most important things is to just provide information for the governing body. Do not take sides. You can have your opinion, and you can share (delicately and respectfully) if you are asked, but otherwise it is best to let the governing body use the facts you provide them to come to a decision. I try to only intervene if I see that information is not being understood and I try to clarify.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Being elected AMMA President. It is the highlight mainly because of the trust and confidence shown me by my fellow Alaska managers.
What do you see as your greatest priority as the head of the Alaska Municipal Managers Association?
Growing membership and making the organization better known in Alaska.
What challenges have you faced in your own career, and how has ICMA helped you?
Ethics concerns have been my greatest challenge. I refuse to knowingly break the law, and I have worked in organizations where I was directed to commit illegal acts “or else.” Also, I have worked in organizations where elected officials were involved in illegal activities and I was expected to ignore that activity. In each case I have resigned my position. In one of those instances ICMA West Coast Regional Director Kevin Duggan provided some very helpful insights on how to handle such matters.