Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation has cast the city’s leadership into uncertainty and left the Assembly and its legal counsel scrambling to figure out who will replace him, and how.
According to the city’s charter, the Assembly chair becomes the acting mayor during a vacancy.
Felix Rivera is the current Assembly chairman. But on Wednesday, Rivera scheduled a special meeting of the Assembly for Friday, to decide whether keep him as chairman — making him acting mayor — or to vote in a new chair. Whoever is selected will take over when Berkowitz’s resignation goes into effect one week later.
But ambiguities in the city’s charter mean it’s unclear how long whoever becomes acting mayor can serve in that position, Rivera said.
What is clear, though, is that anyone stepping into the mayoral shoes will be tasked with steering the city through a mire of critical issues.
“Right now, the decisions that we make are having huge impacts on everyone’s lives. So everything we do is going to get scrutinized,” Rivera said.
The city is now facing its highest numbers of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The crisis has also crippled the city’s economy, and complicated its already difficult effort to address homelessness. There are deep divisions in the community over how those issues should be managed going forward.
Berkowitz was grappling with all those challenges before he swiftly descended from his position as the state’s top Democrat, less than a week after a local TV reporter posted unsubstantiated allegations against him on social media. On Monday, Berkowitz, who is married, admitted to having a “consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship” with the reporter.
“I think it becomes abundantly clear that right now, we need stabilization. We can’t erupt into chaos,” Rivera said. “I am appreciative that the mayor made this decision.”
Worries over too many mayors in just a few months
Berkowitz’s resignation goes into effect Oct. 23, a little over eight months before his term would have ended in July.
Although whoever is chosen as chair of the Assembly on Friday will become the city’s acting mayor, right now, it is not clear who that might be or how long they will serve in that role.
Rivera said that he is waiting to receive advice on Friday from the city attorney and the Assembly’s counsel on whether a special election will need to be held, or whether the acting mayor can stay in the position until the regular election is held.
The city’s charter states that a special or regular election must be held “not less than 90 days” after a vacancy occurs. Berkowitz’s October resignation could mean that a special election would be held early next year.
“I am still waiting for advice from the municipal attorney, and from the Assembly’s counsel, on the topic of whether we need to have a special election to fill the vacancy of the mayor, or whether we can do this during the regular election,” Rivera said.
Some Assembly members said they would prefer that whoever is chosen on Friday remain acting mayor until the regular election.
That would be to avoid a situation where Anchorage could potentially have four mayors in just a few months: Berkowitz, the acting mayor/Assembly chair, a mayor chosen by voters in a special election and another mayor voted into office during the regular election in April.
Assemblyman Chris Constant said that forgoing a special election would allow the city some continuity in leadership rather than thrusting it into further, unnecessary uncertainty.
“The potential for, you know, four mayors and four or five elections between now and then — that’s insane,” Constant said. “That kind of instability is untenable.”
Assemblywoman Jamie Allard said that a special election could cost a lot of money and be difficult for the mayoral candidates and also for voters, who would have to vote again just a few months later. But the Assembly must follow the city’s charter, and she views the law as clear — a special election must be held, she said.
Constant and Rivera said that they do not know what the attorneys examining the charter will find.
“Ultimately, they have to follow the code," Constant said.
‘You can’t do it by yourself'
Several Assembly members interviewed Wednesday said that choosing an acting mayor on Friday could be a long process, but each said that whoever is chosen must be a stable, grounded leader.
“It’s a little bit of new and uncharted territory for all of us. We’ve never had a mayor resign,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy.
Choosing a leader will necessitate open, frank discussion of the qualifications of each person nominated, Assemblyman John Weddleton said.
Weddleton said that each member can nominate someone for the chair position, and that members will vote until a majority vote is reached in favor of one nominee.
“I’m looking for someone with experience, somebody who has probably been a longer-term member on the Assembly,” Kennedy said. “I’m looking for somebody who is politically non-volatile and someone who certainly has a good relationship with some of the staff.”
It will be critical for the acting mayor to work well with the Assembly, she said.
State Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, served as acting mayor in 2009 after the previous mayor, Mark Begich, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare for the job,” he said.
This acting mayor will have even less time to prepare, with just one week for the mayor’s powers to transition from Berkowitz to the Assembly chair.
Claman said that the acting mayor will have the power to make changes to appointed positions, but said it is unlikely that there would be a big shift.
“You have to put your team together to run the city because you can’t do it by yourself. Often, to a large measure, that ends up relying on getting some of the existing folks in the city to stay around and help you,” Claman said.
Turnover is common as a mayor’s term draws to a close during a normal transition of power, he said. This is a little different, he said.
“The person that takes over as acting mayor really is going to need to be prepared to step in and take a significant leadership role,” he said.
Also, Claman said, “the person that takes that role is really going to need to be prepared to make some very tough decisions."
Andrew Halcro, who is the executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority and worked with Berkowitz in the Legislature, said it’s “incredibly critical” for the next mayor "to have the faith and trust of the people.”
“Once you forfeit credibility, you cannot govern,” he said.
Halcro said Berkowitz stepping down was the right choice because it allows the city to move forward.
“Now, more than ever, it’s so critical for the next mayor to be looking forward and to have a plan, because they’re going to inherit the same challenges that this mayor did — an economy in recession, a growing homelessness problem and a significant lack of resources to deal with both," in addition to the pandemic, Halcro said.