Anchorage

Anchorage Mayor Bronson replaces city’s first chief equity officer without Assembly consent

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has replaced the city’s first chief equity officer, Clifford Armstrong III, who was hired by the former acting mayor and confirmed by the Assembly in April.

The mayor fired Armstrong without the consent of the city Assembly — which Assembly leadership says is a violation of city code, but the mayor’s office said is allowed under the city charter. Armstrong said he’s considering legal action.

Municipal code, as passed by the Assembly last summer, says the chief equity officer “may be dismissed by the mayor only for cause shown, and only with the concurrence of a majority of the Assembly.”

“He isn’t fired. The code is clear. The mayor is required to submit a cause and the Assembly must concur,” said Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant.

Armstrong said he was fired on Thursday.

Human resources representatives “insinuated that I work at the pleasure of the mayor — which I disagreed with, but that is the phrase that they use for most executives — which is to say that they can be appointed or fired, with or without cause, by the mayor,” Armstrong said.

“Obviously, code doesn’t read that way, isn’t that way,” Armstrong said. “They basically said, ‘Well, you can resign or be involuntarily separated,’ so I chose the latter,” he said.

The mayor acted properly under the city charter, said Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office. That section of the charter says the mayor “shall appoint all heads of municipal departments, subject to confirmation by the assembly, on the basis of professional qualifications. Persons appointed by the mayor serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”

Young wouldn’t say why Armstrong’s employment was terminated without the Assembly’s agreement, saying the city can’t comment on personnel matters because they’re confidential.

“From the administration’s viewpoint, I’m separated as of Thursday. From the Assembly’s, I’m still employed. So it does call to question in some way what being fired means in such an ambiguous situation,” Armstrong said.

“The mayor is playing shell games and attempting to distort reality. Our code is clear. He is not a king,” Constant said.

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said the Assembly’s attorney is reviewing the situation. The Assembly wasn’t informed of the mayor’s decision to fire Armstrong, she said.

By removing Armstrong, Bronson is challenging city code, LaFrance said.

“The Assembly will do whatever appropriate due diligence is needed in reviewing this situation,” LaFrance said.

On Monday, the mayor named Uluao “Junior” Aumavae as his new appointee for the position. Aumavae was born in American Samoa and grew up in Anchorage, according to a statement from the mayor’s office. He worked recently in Alaska as a community outreach specialist with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Anchorage NAACP President Kevin McGee demanded Bronson reverse Armstrong’s firing in a statement posted to social media.

“The Mayor needs to re-hire the Chief Equity Officer immediately, because the firing was illegal,” McGee said.

The NAACP also claimed that Armstrong was fired in an attempt by the mayor’s office to cover up a report that Armstrong had written, documenting the city’s failure to comply with federal civil rights laws.

“The Mayor also needs to come clean with the public about the Equity Officer’s report that his administration is trying to cover up,” McGee said.

The mayor’s office called McGee’s claims “completely false and unwarranted.”

“The compliance issue with the Affirmative Action Plan (AAP) has been going on for about ten years,” Young said in an emailed statement.

The city had been working on a report during the Berkowitz administration, and the 2020 report was finalized and submitted to the Assembly in June, Young said. A 2021 report was completed by the end of February, he said.

“The AAP Report was shared with Mr. Armstrong in May 2021. Since that time he had been reviewing the draft 2021 AAP. He sent a summary and follow up questions to HR staff. This correspondence was still ongoing,” Young said. “The Bronson Administration fully intends to release the report once it is finalized.”

Armstrong said that Young’s statements about the history of the reports are true. However, Armstrong said that past reports were primarily data reports — much of which he said was incomplete or calculated with improper context, resulting in inaccuracies — rather than an action plan.

“Summarizing and making it a tangible actionable thing is a completely different story,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said his report found large disparities in the city’s personnel practices, such as hiring and promotions. The city did not reach 52 of 53 hiring placement goals for people with disabilities, he said. The city also missed multiple goals for hiring and promotions of veterans, people of color and women, he said.

Armstrong said he had made multiple recommendations in the report, which he presented in-person to Bronson’s chief of staff, Sami Graham, last Monday. He was fired three days later, he said.

“We actually have very concrete things that we need to be doing that weren’t being done for the decades before I got there, and ostensibly had I not said what I said, they probably still wouldn’t be done going forward,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he believes the report on the city’s Affirmative Action Plan was one among several reasons he was fired.

The report was “not the full scope and breadth of the issues,” Armstrong said.

He’d also given the mayor’s office recommendations for policy and code changes to clarify and improve the workflow of the Office of Equity and Justice and other departments, to help better implement the city’s equity goals, Armstrong said.

Due to the report and the city’s budget review process, “it was about to be very public — all of the things that I’ve been working on to this point and a lot of the issues that the muni has,” Armstrong said. “There’s some potential that that’s just things they didn’t want in public.”

He’d also recently been reprimanded for sharing part of the report with Assembly members and administrators, instead of first routing the communication directly through Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, Armstrong said.

Demboski last month implemented a policy that requires all communications from the administration to the Assembly and municipal clerk’s office come from the city manager only, according to a memo sent to all city departments.

The city’s organizational chart shows Armstrong reports directly to the mayor’s office and to the Assembly, not the city manager.

A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on the reprimand, saying the mayor’s office does not comment on personnel matters.

The Assembly created the city’s Office of Equity and Justice, with the chief equity officer position at the helm, last summer as protests against police brutality and systemic racism were happening across the nation. The formation of the new office and position was a proposal from former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

The chief equity officer is responsible for developing, supporting and implementing the municipality’s equity agenda, according to the ordinance creating the position. That means working to build practices in Anchorage’s government that build diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the extensive job description on the city’s website.

Armstrong was appointed by then-Acting Mayor Austin Quinn Davidson in April.

Since Bronson took office in July, tensions have escalated between the Assembly and the administration, especially as the Assembly has weighed implementing a mask ordinance, which Bronson is staunchly against. During a meeting last week, the Bronson administration challenged the Assembly’s authority in the Assembly chambers by removing security guards and a Plexiglas shield which was a part of the Assembly’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

Aumavae, Bronson’s newly appointed chief equity officer, still must face an Assembly confirmation vote, but it’s not yet clear whether his appointment is legal.

Aumavae has worked with both nonprofits and government entities including United Way of Anchorage, the Anchorage School District and the governor’s office, according to the mayor’s office.

In its statement, the mayor’s office also said Aumavae “worked for the National Football League Player Association, serving as the Secretary and Vice President.”

In an email, an NFLPA spokesman clarified that Aumavae served as Vice President of the NFLPA’s Indianapolis Former Players Chapter from 2018-2020 and it was an elected, unpaid position within the chapter.

“Junior Aumavae is the perfect example of someone who has overcome the hardships of life to become successful and strive to help others in need,” Bronson said in his announcement “With his background, experience, and heart, Junior will be a great addition in our efforts to ensure the Municipality of Anchorage’s workforce is more representative of the incredible diversity and talent of Anchorage’s citizens.”

Armstrong said he is looking at his options.

“I’m going to make sure all employment laws are respected as a public administrator who works on equity issues,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that, irrespective of how this process shakes out, this situation is going to be kind of an asterisk that will always be attached to Anchorage and Alaska’s efforts on equity,” Armstrong said.

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