It was saved until the end of Monday’s regular city council meeting, but the lineup at the microphone, the accolades given, the servings of cake and punch and the emotions expressed —laughter and tears — made it clear City Manager Walt Wrede’s upcoming departure was the focus of the evening.
Resident Larry Slone commented on Wrede’s mixed record, considered by some as having done a fine job and by others as being the devil incarnate.
“Nobody’s perfect, Walt,” said Slone. “From the professional perspective, I’d give you an A minus.”
Roberta Highland, a member of the city’s Advisory Planning Commission and president of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, noted disagreements and offered praise.
“Thanks for doing all you’ve done. And being mostly a good guy in my estimation,” said Highland. “We’ve had a couple of disagreements, but, hey, we’re in Homer.”
Mike Illg, coordinator of the city’s Community Recreation Program, said being a “terrific person, kind, patient and sincere” were Wrede’s best qualities.
“That transcends everything we do,” said Illg. “He has a huge legacy here in Homer.”
Kris Holderied, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric’s Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, noted Wrede’s “way of making things work for a whole bunch of people in a way I’ve never seen anyone do. Thanks for your service.”
Having driven from Anchorage to express her appreciation of Wrede, Marie Bader of Kachemak Shellfish Maritime Association praised the openness with which Wrede welcomed members of the public into his office. Milli Martin, who represented the southern peninsula on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at the time Wrede was hired, expressed how “very, very fortunate” Homer was to have Wrede as its city manager.
Robert Archibald, a member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, recalled being impressed the first time he met with Wrede.
“He didn’t look cross-eyed as us, look at us like we were nuts. He tried to understand what you were trying to say, how the city could interface with some dream we had,” said Archibald.
Wrede’s decision to come to Alaska was based on his love of the outdoors: hiking, camping and canoeing. In 1980, he made the move, with Homer as his destination.
“I was writing to chambers of commerce and asking what towns were like. Going to the library. And I found this place called ‘Homer.’ It looked really cool. I liked the pictures, the description of the town,” he said.
When he reached the top of Baycrest Hill, Wrede “knew it was as advertised, just a cool town with neat people and a lot going on. A beautiful place.”
The need for employment led him back to Alaska Children’s Services in Anchorage, before he enrolled in graduate school at Washington State University.
After earning a master’s degree in sociology, he returned to Alaska, did some consulting for the city of Anchorage, taught environmental sociology as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and then went to work for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association for several years. Based in Anchorage, he worked for tribal governments, traveling to Unalaska, False Pass, Nikolski, Adak and Sand Point.
In January 1990, he became the city planner for Cordova, “which was quite an experience. I got there after the oil spill … and the town was in complete turmoil.”
In 1991, Wrede met Mary, the woman to whom he is now married. The couple established a new base in Anchorage in 1994, where Mary attended graduate school and worked for the Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association and Wrede became the borough manager for the Lake and Peninsula Borough, dividing his time between King Salmon and Anchorage.
Eight years later, much of it spent flying in small planes, he was ready for something different. The city manager jobs in Seward, Kodiak and Homer all became available at the same time. Wrede zeroed in on Homer and Homer zeroed in on him.
“In 1980, I came to Alaska because I wanted to come to Homer. That was my destination when I got to the state. It took me 30 years to do it, but I got here,” said Wrede.
Ray Kranich was on the city council that interviewed Wrede. At Monday’s city council meeting, Kranich said hiring Wrede was a decision “I never regretted.”
While Wrede worked for the city, Mary worked for the National Parks Service in Anchorage and Port Alsworth. When the decision was made to open a Lake Clark office in Homer, she was finally able to join Wrede in Homer.
Mayor Beth Wythe presented Wrede with a proclamation at the Monday meeting outlining the projects Wrede has overseen during his 12 years with the city. The six council members — David Lewis, Beau Burgess, Catriona Reynolds, Gus Van Dyke, Bryan Zak and Francie Roberts — divided the lengthy list, each reading a portion aloud.
Earlier this year, during the city-sponsored Citizens Academy, Wrede gave an example of a typical daily schedule. A small portion included reviewing and answering 20-50 emails from the public, drafting a budget amendment ordinance, testifying on pending legislation, attending a committee meeting, taking a complaint about snow berms, meeting with the city’s human resources director about personnel matters; consulting with the city’s lobbyist about strategy, fielding complaints about a dog adoption at the animal shelter, doing a radio interview and consulting with the city attorney.
Small wonder his plans for after Dec. 31 call for a little time off to recharge his batteries. With his wife’s work now based in Anchorage, Wrede will relocate there, but the couple will keep their Homer house.
“Mary has made it quite clear to me that this is where we’re retiring, really retiring in three, four years,” said Wrede. “We can’t really leave Homer. That’s not going to happen.”
Wrede’s biggest challenge in his 12-year tenure as city manager “has been not taking things personally, trying to be as professional as you can at all times. Realizing that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do, say, how hard you work, you’ll have critics. … You have to listen to people, measure the value of what they’re saying, but you can’t take it to heart. Can’t let it get to you.”
What he’s most proud of is fulfilling the charge he was given by the city council 12 years ago, at a time when annexation was still a hot topic and tempers ran high.
“The council asked me, ‘Can you just calm things down a little bit?’ I think for the most part, we’ve been able to do that,” said Wrede, who has since worked for three mayors and a long list of council members.
“The council has worked well together and I’ve been able to have good relationships with the council. When that happens, it works well for the community. I think that’s what I’m happiest about.”
Council members, as well as former council member Barbara Howard, testified to that close working relationship in their parting comments to Wrede.
“Walt, thank you for your dedication to excellence and customer service and respect for the tax dollars of our city. We will miss you,” said Howard.
The last to speak was Wythe, who has sat next to Wrede during council meetings for the past decade.
“We are public administrators, public servants, and he does it exceptionally,” said Wythe, her voice breaking with emotion.