Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s appointed health department director, David Morgan, resigned Friday after coming under intense scrutiny from Anchorage Assembly members over his qualifications and comments he made recently about the pandemic.
Morgan was scheduled to come before the Assembly for a confirmation vote Tuesday.
Many Assembly members had said they lack confidence in Morgan’s abilities, and earlier this week during a hearing they questioned him over his views on the pandemic, previous posts he’d made on social media and his work history.
In his resignation letter, Morgan cited “deep-seated partisan opposition” to his appointment as a reason for leaving, saying it “appears as though credentials and qualifications do not matter.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 numbers are rising in Anchorage again, driven by the more contagious delta variant, and the Anchorage Health Department has recently seen the departure of other top health experts who had helped track and analyze the pandemic for the city.
Bronson in a news release Friday announced that the department’s deputy director, DeeAnn Fetko, will serve as acting director until the position is filled and said that he “regretfully” accepted Morgan’s resignation.
In his resignation letter, Morgan said that “following my appointment, it became very clear I would be the target of an organized political witch hunt.
“Sadly, members of the Anchorage Assembly and well-known political activists spread misinformation, lies and even slanderous information in order to discredit my name, derail my nomination and undermine Mayor Bronson’s efforts to bring Anchorage together,” Morgan said.
Bronson in his statement also said that Morgan removed his name from consideration to “avoid the months of partisan attacks that would follow him at every turn.”
“David Morgan has proven over many years in public health administration that he is highly experienced, qualified, and capable. However, due to what can only be described as a political campaign against him, David Morgan has decided to remove his name from consideration,” Bronson said.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant on Friday said that he is “grateful to the mayor for doing what was right for the municipality and accepting the resignation.”
“There was no action by the Assembly, except to ask questions, which is exactly our job,” Constant said.
Bronson in his statement said that the Assembly has “long acknowledged” that new mayor’s administrations should be able choose their senior leadership.
“However, the Assembly is headed down a very dangerous path that challenges years of precedent and undermines any future Administration from performing its required duties,” Bronson said.
Morgan’s previous work experience is mostly in accounting and finance for multiple Alaska organizations, including health care organizations, and includes working at the Southcentral Foundation as a reimbursement director, according to his resume.
In an interview this week before Morgan’s resignation, Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said he believes Morgan has good intentions, but that “so far what I’ve seen confirms my fears that he is likely not the right person for that job.”
Morgan came under scrutiny from Assembly members over posts he shared on social media, which some members characterized as casting doubt on the existence of the pandemic.
Assembly members had also received emailed testimony from people who previously worked with Morgan at local nonprofit CHOICES, describing a negative experience working with Morgan and urging members to not confirm him. That testimony also stoked worry among members that he would not effectively lead the department.
During his confirmation hearing this week, Morgan said he left CHOICES when the board changed the nonprofit’s CEO.
“I’ve never received any written documentation of any problems,” Morgan said. “And so, I guess to sum it up is, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Period.”
Last week, the health department’s former epidemiologist, Janet Johnston also resigned, and former medical officer Dr. Bruce Chandler delivered his resignation letter on Sunday. Chandler’s resignation is effective Aug. 15, and he is currently on leave, according to a department spokeswoman.
During an Anchorage Assembly confirmation hearing for Morgan on Tuesday, Morgan told members that Chandler had retired. Chandler did not return phone calls from the Daily News.
Johnston had been responsible for overseeing the city’s public health response to COVID-19, analyzing and interpreting data and advising city officials Johnston had resigned with a week’s notice but was told to instead make the resignation immediate, she said.
“I’m extremely concerned that the municipal leadership won’t come out more strongly to encourage vaccination and masking,” Johnston said on Thursday. “I think it’s just so important that we do everything we can to encourage vaccination, and without the support of the municipal leadership for that, I didn’t feel like I could be very effective.”
Several Assembly members said they were worried that leaves the city with an expertise void at a time when city hospital administrators have warned that if current trends continue, hospitalizations could overwhelm the state’s fragile health care system and burnt-out health care work force.
The city is seeing its largest surge in hospitalizations since late December and all regions of Alaska are at the highest alert level for coronavirus risk, according to state data.
Now, the newly appointed chief medical officer, Dr. Michael Savitt, a pediatrician, is in charge of monitoring the city’s COVID-19 data, testing and vaccination programs, along with Fetko.
Savitt’s hiring was also contributing to Assembly members’ skepticism of Morgan. Savitt is the author of numerous politically-charged comments on a local conservative website that criticized the Anchorage Assembly and former mayoral administrations for COVID-19 -related restrictions, including the previous mask mandate, and questioned the effectiveness of masks as a tool against the virus.
Constant questioned Morgan at his hearing this week about hiring Savitt, noting that Savitt’s resume does not reflect experience with infectious disease.
“It doesn’t give great confidence to know that we’ve replaced someone credible with someone who has a kind of colored past with the Assembly,” Constant said.
None of the health department’s programs, including its COVID-19 vaccine and testing, have changed significantly since Bronson took office, according to the department.
The health department is responsible for many other public health services and programs, including child care licensing, food permitting, housing and homelessness programs among others, with a total $14.7 million budget and about 130 workers.
This week the department expanded its COVID-19 testing options in order to help reduce wait times as the increase in cases is causing a heightened demand for testing.
Bronson while campaigning for mayor made statements downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic in Anchorage and criticized the previous administrations and the Assembly for enacting shutdowns, restrictions and the mask mandate, saying they damaged the city’s economy and infringed on personal freedoms.
Last week during a news conference Bronson again called the coronavirus vaccine “experimental,” and said he will not get one now.
Bronson also emphasized personal choice when it comes to COVID-19 precautions and said that rather than enacting COVID-19 restrictions and mandates, the city is there to provide information, testing and vaccinations to people who want them.