Anchorage city clerk resigns in wake of troubled election

Kyle Hopkins
Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage City Clerk Barbara Gruenstein sat in her second-story office shortly before noon Wednesday at City Hall, screening calls on her cellphone.

After nine years of overseeing municipal elections and serving as the Assembly's right hand in city government, Gruenstein had just announced her resignation. Everyone wanted to talk. The clerk had little to say.

"I understand the problems of the April 3 election have caused you to doubt the effectiveness of my continuing to serve," Gruenstein wrote in a resignation letter delivered Tuesday to Assembly chairman Ernie Hall. "I understand clearly that I serve at the pleasure of the Assembly and I offer to step down."

Hall accepted. Gruenstein's departure marks the latest fallout in the slipshod city mayoral elections, during which ballots ran out at more than half of Anchorage precincts. The chaos angered voters, sparked investigations and has now vacated the top two leadership posts at the City Clerk's Office that oversees local elections.

Hall fired deputy clerk Jacqueline Duke, a key election planner, May 9.

Gruenstein wouldn't say if the Assembly chairman asked her to step down. "I'm not going to get into any of that stuff. The letter is what it is," she said.

Hall and co-chair Jennifer Johnston said Wednesday they did not ask the clerk to quit. But faced with her resignation letter, they did not ask her to stay either.

The resignation was not unexpected, Hall said. "I don't know that we were shocked by it because there's been a tremendous amount of stress ever since the election that we've all been dealing with."

Recruited in 2003

Gruenstein salary is about $117,000 a year, according to the muni employee relations department. She will leave the job at the end of June, Hall said.

The clerk said she never sought out the job. An English major, Gruenstein traveled by train from Buffalo, N.Y., across Canada to Alaska when she was in her 20s. For the most part, she never left.

She worked as a telecom executive in the 1990s and early 2000s, leaving her post to help friend Fran Ulmer run for governor. Traini and former Assemblyman Allan Tesche recruited her to the clerk's job in 2003.

"I could see over the years she was good at what she did," Traini said.

The Assembly is the legislative arm of local government. Assembly leaders appoint the clerk, who runs elections, fields ethics complaints, oversees business licensing and is often the first stop for people visiting City Hall with complaints or questions.

Finding a replacement for Gruenstein may not be so easy, Traini said.

"Anchorage has a reputation," he said. Job security in the clerk's office, at least for the head of the department, is inherently uncertain. Upset too many members of the fractious Assembly, and you're out of a job.

"It's a snake pit. I couldn't get any other sitting clerk -- for example, Fairbanks or Kenai -- to come up here," Traini said.

Gruenstein was generally well-liked and served a string of different chair persons, a tenure longer than most, Assembly members said.

In her resignation letter, Gruenstein wrote that her "greatest legacy will be tested later this year or next." That's when the Assembly reapportions voting districts following the statewide redistricting effort, she said.

Along with working to eliminate split voting precincts in Anchorage, Gruenstein said digitizing Assembly records for easy online access was among the highlights of her tenure.

Election meltdown

The Assembly voted 8-3 on May 3 to certify the election results pending a recount that did not change the outcome of Election Day contests. Also this month, the Assembly agreed to hire a retired judge to investigate the voting woes and recommend ways to avoid similar problems in the future.

Under Gruenstein's watch, the city suffered one of the worst Anchorage election meltdowns in recent history.

The duty of deciding how many ballots were sent to each precinct was delegated to Duke, the deputy clerk, Hall said. The clerk has said that, in retrospect, she wished she had taken a more active role in the planning process.

"The buck also stops with the Assembly," said co-chair Jennifer Johnston.

"We have a responsibility to look at Title 28 (the city election rules), make the necessary code change," she said. "We have the responsibility to have a clerk's office that will meet the public needs."

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