The Anchorage Assembly Tuesday night rejected Mayor Dave Bronson’s choice for city librarian, and the mayor immediately countered by naming her as his new chief of staff.
Sami Graham, a former longtime Anchorage principal and teacher who unsuccessfully ran for school board in April’s municipal election, ran into opposition from Assembly members who questioned whether she was qualified for the job because she lacked a degree in library science. Members of the Bronson administration argued that Graham’s other experience qualified her for the position, and the mayor had the legal discretion to appoint her.
After a lengthy debate, the Assembly failed to confirm Graham in a 7-4 vote.
Right after the vote, Bronson, in a surprise announcement, said Graham would serve as his chief of staff. That position does not require a confirmation vote.
Graham joined Bronson and members of his administration at the dais, to applause, sitting in the seat labeled with Craig Campbell’s name. Campbell had been serving as Bronson’s chief of staff since his inauguration.
The mayor’s office also announced Campbell is stepping down as chief of staff and will now be director of policy and programs, a new role.
“Just for reference, when you are looking for the chief of staff, the new chief of staff, her office will be in the library,” Bronson said.
Graham will also have an office in the mayor’s office, a statement from the Bronson administration said.
In the statement, the administration said Graham will also “manage day-to-day administrative operations” for his office, but additionally, “in her capacity as chief of staff, Mayor Bronson has also delegated his authority to oversee the Anchorage Public Library to Mrs. Graham.”
The administration will be looking for a library director, Campbell said Wednesday. Graham will manage some of the library in her role as chief of staff, Campbell said.
Campbell is now serving as a special assistant to the mayor as director of policy and programs and had temporarily taken the chief of staff position, he said.
Bronson said in the statement that he had expected that Graham would not be confirmed as librarian by the Assembly, a move he described as “blinded by partisanship and driven to obstruct our administration from moving forward.”
“However, over these many weeks, I’ve grown increasingly impressed with Sami Graham’s political insight, organizational leadership and ability to navigate complex challenges. For many of the same reasons Sami was qualified to run the Library and more, she will be a great addition to help lead Mayor’s office operations,” Bronson said.
Assembly member Crystal Kennedy, who had voted in favor of Graham’s appointment, said the announcement was “definitely unorthodox” but “certainly within the mayor’s purview.”
“The mayor has the right to staff his administration as he sees fit, and I believe that is what he is doing,” Kennedy said.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, who voted against Graham’s appointment, agreed that the mayor has the right to appoint her as his chief of staff and said he looked forward to working with her in the role.
“I think the way it was done was a bit showy and disruptive to our process, but I’m willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt on that count,” Rivera said.
“That said, I’m very curious about what Craig Campbell will be doing in his new role,” Rivera said.
On social media Wednesday, Rivera raised questions about the mayor’s statement that Graham would still oversee the library, saying, “I’m skeptical this passes legal scrutiny” and asked Bronson to reconsider.
On Wednesday, Assembly member Chris Constant also said that he has some concerns about Graham overseeing the library from that position, and said the Assembly is conducting a legal analysis.
Matt Shuckerow, interim spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in response that “the mayor was elected by the residents of Anchorage to run and operate the Municipality of Anchorage, which includes his team — the municipal manager, the CFO, the OMB director, but it also includes a chief of staff. As the mayor stated, he has asked Sami Graham to take the lead on working on issues related to the library.”
Graham was not the first Bronson appointee to draw scrutiny from Anchorage Assembly members. David Morgan, who Bronson had appointed to lead the city health department, resigned earlier this month ahead of his confirmation vote after some Assembly members questioned previous statements he had made about the pandemic and his qualifications.
Before the Assembly voted on Graham’s confirmation, the mayor and members of his administration continued to argue she deserved the role, despite the job’s minimum qualifications of a Master’s degree in library science and seven years of library experience, citing her many years in various positions as an educator and school administrator.
“Mrs. Graham is clearly qualified to serve as our next library director; she possesses equivalent qualifications,” said municipality director of human resources Niki Tshibaka. “...She is a very able, very talented, very respected educational leader in our community. Our libraries are supposed to be a balance of education and literacy, she has critical experience in that.”
Tshibaka pointed to Anchorage Municipal Code Section 3.30.024D, which says other combinations of experience “may be qualifying if deemed equivalent.”
Municipal manager Amy Demboski argued to the Assembly that “recent past actions of this body indicate the body is comfortable confirming people new to the position of directors of departments,” citing, among other recent appointees, herself.
“I have never managed a city of this size, yet I am today the municipal manager,” she said.
Those and other arguments were not enough to sway a majority of Assembly members.
“I am certain the mayor can find a more qualified candidate,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance. “I don’t believe that the administration has shown that the candidate possesses alternative equivalent qualifications.”
Assembly members said they had received a notable amount of pushback from the public about Graham’s appointment.
“We have received hundreds upon hundreds of emails about this appointee, almost entirely negative,” said member Austin Quinn-Davidson. “..I haven’t seen anything like that in a long time, maybe at all with an appointee.”
Members of the Assembly also voted down a proposal by member John Weddleton to postpone Graham’s confirmation vote to Sept. 14; Weddleton had argued that the administration should revisit its hiring process for the position, look at other applicants, and allow Graham to lay out her plans going forward for the library.
“Our role as the Assembly is not to get involved in the HR process, and not to interview other candidates,” Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said in opposition to Weddleton’s motion. “We have been presented this as the nominee and our job is to determine whether we believe that this person is qualified for the position or not, period.”
Perez-Verdia said Graham is “a very impressive human being, she has had a great career, but her career has not been aligned to this field,” and voted against her appointment, along with LaFrance, Rivera, Quinn-Davidson, Pete Petersen, Meg Zaletel and Forrest Dunbar.
Along with members Jamie Allard, Kennedy and Weddleton, Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant voted in favor of confirming Graham as librarian — “in my opinion, she did come across the line with the qualifications,” he said. But Constant said he felt the Assembly did its duty with the confirmation vote.
He called Graham’s surprise appointment as Bronson’s chief of staff “a great decision.”
“You can’t argue that she’s not qualified for the position of chief of staff,” Constant said. “...She has years of running a school or several schools, which is surely as complex as running a mayor’s staff. I think, in fact, she may be more qualified than many who have been in that position.”