Outgoing Mayor Koelsch looks back on an unusual tenure

Outgoing Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch holds up a wooden plaque featuring a quote by political theorist Edmund Burke. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)
Outgoing Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch holds up a wooden plaque featuring a quote by political theorist Edmund Burke. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Juneau’s new mayor, Beth Weldon, and three new assembly members will be sworn in at City Hall Monday night.

As the new elected leaders transition in, reporter Adelyn Baxter sat down with outgoing Mayor Ken Koelsch to look back on his time serving Juneau.

When I arrived at City Hall for a final interview with Koelsch, he insisted on giving me a tour of his bright blue office. He takes pride in the local art and historical memorabilia he’s filled it with during his term. Paintings and photos cover the walls — things donated, gifted or brought from Koelsch’s home.

He gestures to one wall lined with portraits.

“Then we found all the former mayors since unification, and put their pictures up one by one. Some of them have come in and demanded that we switch out their pictures for better ones.”

Koelsch is 74 now. Before he entered Juneau’s political arena, he was an English teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School for years.

Then he worked for Customs and Border Protection before retiring in 2014.

I asked Koelsch what got him into politics originally. He leads me to his desk and picks up a wooden plaque with a quote from 18th century Irish politician Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

“You can either talk about things, or you can do things,” Koelsch summarized.

Koelsch would be the first to tell you that the circumstances that led to his election were unusual.

After Mayor Greg Fisk died suddenly a little more than a month after taking office in 2015, the City and Borough held a hasty special election to replace him.

Not a lot of candidates were prepared to run at short notice.

“So it was one of those deals where, you know, (someone) needed to step up,” Koelsch said. “I had been on the Assembly for six years prior and just decided that, (I) did not want to just let it slide by without any competition.”

Koelsch won that election the following March.

Though he served a slightly abridged term, it was destined to be an eventful one.

Just after taking office, he oversaw the transition of a new city manager and found himself named in a lawsuit filed in federal court. That costly legal battle over tax revenue between the city and the cruise ship industry is still ongoing.

From there, Koelsch went on to see controversial votes on issues like banning the homeless from camping downtown and whether to put an advisory question about child care on the October municipal ballot.

Juneau has a weak mayor, strong city manager form of government. While the mayor gets a vote on the Assembly, it’s a largely ceremonial position — a lot of it is showing up at events and making speeches.  

Still, Koelsch said  he treated it like a full-time job.

He said he appreciated the civility of Juneau politics and hopes it continues. 

“I think that’s extremely important. I hope we don’t become polarized or get sucked into this vortex that we have on a national level,” Koelsch said.

I asked him if there was one issue he would look back on as his proudest accomplishment as mayor.

He said no.

“Because I don’t think that you go into the office trying to establish a legacy,” Koeslch said. “You know, the legacy is that hopefully I’ve served and served well.”

When he announced his decision not to seek re-election in August, Koelsch said it was because he felt it was time for a new generation to step up.

“You work with the hand that you’re dealt and you try to make it better,” he said. “Even now there’s going to be a huge change in the Assembly and that will make a difference in how they attack issues.”

As far as what’s next, he’s content not knowing.

“That’s why it’s called retirement right? I’m not very good at retirement, so we’ll see how we do.”

At Monday’s Assembly meeting, Koelsch will take his leave along with Deputy Mayor Jerry Nankervis, who’s running for state House District 34.

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