Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly hires law firm in separation of powers dispute with mayor

After Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration pulled security guards, removed a plexiglass shield and otherwise asserted control over the Assembly chambers during a meeting last week, the Anchorage Assembly is hiring a law firm for backup as Assembly leaders say the mayor and his administration are overstepping the bounds of the city’s separation of powers.

In an 8-2 vote, the Assembly hired law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, with former city manager, city attorney and mayoral candidate Bill Falsey as the likely primary attorney.

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance proposed the contract with the law firm during Tuesday’s Assembly meeting.

In a statement responding to the Assembly’s action, a spokesman for the mayor accused the Assembly of themselves “consistently” showing “lack of respect for role of the executive branch” by trying to access privileged municipal documents.

Bronson is a vehement opponent of government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, and since he took office in July, tensions have escalated between the Assembly and his administration.

Over the last two weeks of meetings on masking requirements, there have been frequent clashes between the mayor, members of his administration and Assembly members. At Tuesday night’s meeting, LaFrance said municipal manager Amy Demboski ordered security to leave the chambers on Thursday. That meeting was packed with people opposed to the mask ordinance, who chanted, cheered, sang and jeered throughout the meeting, often ignoring LaFrance’s calls for order.

APD’s CAP Team remained in the chambers as a security presence and was “well equipped to handle situations and events as they have done time and time again,” the mayor’s office said by email.

However, LaFrance said security staff could not help de-escalate or remove disruptive people from the meeting, as Anchorage Police Department officers only intervene to address criminal behavior.

“I was not consulted or informed before the removal and neither was the vice chair or the clerk. This is an unacceptable situation that must not occur again, as it puts the public safety at risk,” LaFrance said.

Demboski also attempted to shut off the livestream of the meeting, which allows people who aren’t in the Assembly chambers to watch the meeting, LaFrance said.

“These actions I described — the attempt to cut the public broadcast at the meeting, the removal of security from the chambers, and the undermining of the Assembly chamber’s COVID-19 mitigation plan — are each specific examples of separation of power issues, whereby the executive branch is overstepping and interfering with the Assembly’s execution of its legislative function and duty,” LaFrance said.

The mayor disagrees, Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by email.

“The livestream was not shut down at any time,” Young said, adding that “there was nothing done to impede the Assembly in holding their meetings in the chambers.”

Young said Assembly members had tried to access privileged and confidential documents in the administration’s workflow.

The Assembly “has consistently demonstrated their lack of respect for role of the Executive Branch,” Young said.

Last month Demboski 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 memo accuses the Assembly and some of its employees of attempting to use “informal back channels to gain access to information.”

Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said the Assembly may soon take the dispute to the courts.

“We have witnessed a stark difference in basic understandings of reality of late in the municipality. The mayor clearly has at his command an unruly crowd who take his words as gospel,” Constant said. “The mayor claims the Assembly has violated separation of powers. The Assembly can demonstrate the opposite.”

Falsey will be the Assembly’s primary attorney from the firm, overseen by partner Holly Wells, according to the memorandum. Falsey previously worked as the city’s municipal attorney and later as the municipal manager under the administration of former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. He was also briefly municipal manager in the administration of former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson.

Falsey ran for mayor and lost during the spring mayoral election, which Bronson ultimately won after a runoff against Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.

Assembly members Crystal Kennedy and Jamie Allard voted against hiring Falsey. Each said they were concerned that Falsey would have a conflict of interest.

“The point is, he is in the middle of something that he has had significant connections with — a past administration and this current Assembly,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy noted that Falsey was a candidate in the race for mayor against Bronson.

“So just looking at this, even from just a public relations perspective, doesn’t look good,” Kennedy said. “I’m not questioning Mr. Falsey’s ability to talk about the separation of powers idea, but unfortunately, the idea of being able to completely come forward with an unbiased opinion on this.”

Dean Gates, the Assembly’s legal counsel, said that he did not see any potential conflict if Falsey were hired. The Assembly has asked Gates to advise on several specific incidents and he has been “a little overwhelmed” in keeping up with the usual workflow, Gates said.

“I want to be very clear that there is no conflict of interest here,” LaFrance said. “The contract is legal.”

The contract is a way to obtain support for legislative drafting and research projects, she said.

The Assembly in August granted Falsey a waiver to do legal work for the city. Code states that former city employees must wait one year before doing paid work advising or representing the city in matters they worked on directly as a city employee.

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