Anchorage Assembly approves new special assistant position

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday approved creating a new position in city government, a special assistant to the Assembly. The position is designed to help with what members say is an increasing workload.

The Assembly passed the ordinance in an 8-2 vote, but with changes that included removing some language from the description of the special assistant’s powers. Those were made to assuage fears from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration that the assistant would have the ability to access his staff’s private meetings, with unrestricted access into all records and activities of the municipal government and its departments.

The administration said the ordinance as originally written would have violated the executive powers of the administration and the separation of powers.

An amendment from members John Weddleton and Felix Rivera removed language that said the assistant would have “full, free and unrestricted access” to all public records, municipal property, personnel, all activities of the government and its departments, and all policies, plans and procedures, and records pertaining to financial expenditures.

The amendment left the assistant with access to public records, without having to pay for them.

Weddleton during the meeting said he appreciates that the administration was open about their concerns with the ordinance, and that the amendment brings the position in line with the intent.

“The point that was brought up was good and this is actually more appropriate for the position,” he said.

The section removed by the amendment “caused an unfortunate amount of angst to the administration,” though the Assembly would not have been able to violate the separation of powers with the executive branch at any point, Weddleton said.

The Assembly in April set aside $150,712 to fund the position, a total that includes benefits, according to Rivera, who was chair at the time. The chair of the Assembly will hire the special assistant, whose title will be legislative liaison.

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Rivera said that he and Weddleton started a process to strengthen the Assembly branch last year.

“Politics had absolutely nothing to do with my work, because we need a strong Assembly, no matter how closely aligned the two branches of government may be,” Rivera said.

Rivera said the Assembly at one time had a budget office with full time staff member who helped with research.

“Unfortunately, this office was slashed entirely and all of its functions were moved over into the clerk’s office, and frankly the Assembly has been suffering from inadequate staffing ever since, leading to a huge imbalance in our system of governance,” Rivera said.

Still, even with the changes, some concerns over whether the position is necessary lingered. Assembly member Jamie Allard, who represents Chugiak/Eagle River, said the position is redundant.

“To create yet another government position and salary at this time is irresponsible and raises questions to the true intent of this Assembly,” Allard said. “The functions of this proposed position are already covered by the Municipal Clerk’s Office, Assembly council, ombudsman, Assembly members and their legislative aides.”

Allard said that it “creates the perception that the Assembly does not trust the new administration” and is that it is not willing to work with them.

Allard and Assembly member Crystal Kennedy, who also represents Chugiak/Eagle River, voted against creating the position.

Other members disagreed, saying the assistant will help them to better perform their duties, create better policy and better communicate with the public and the administration.

Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, former acting mayor of Anchorage, said the new position was a step in the right direction.

The mayor’s office has “a massive amount of resources, dozens of executive appointments that serve at your pleasure and do what you direct them to do, and the Assembly -- we have nothing like that,” she said.