Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly attempts to solidify control of its meeting spaces as power struggle with Bronson administration escalates

The Anchorage Assembly on Wednesday changed city code in two key ways, with the majority saying the changes clarify the separation of powers but Mayor Dave Bronson calling them a “power grab.”

Amid an escalating struggle with Bronson, the Assembly passed two ordinances during its second meeting this week after it did not finish its agenda on Tuesday. One ordinance changes code to formally designate control over Assembly meeting spaces to the Assembly chair. The other changes the executive appointments process, bringing the mayor’s appointees to the Assembly for confirmation much more quickly.

Bronson is a conservative and a vehement opponent of COVID-19 restrictions, and since he took office in July, tensions have grown between the liberal-leaning Assembly and his administration. Disagreements have revolved around COVID-19 mitigation measures in Assembly chambers during meetings and whether some of the mayor’s executive appointees are qualified to serve.

Control over Assembly chambers

In an 8-2 vote, the Assembly passed an ordinance specifying that the Assembly chair — currently Suzanne LaFrance — has the authority to exercise management over the spaces where the Assembly holds its meetings, such as its chambers in Loussac Library.

Assembly leadership introduced the ordinance last month after a series of heated meetings stretching over two weeks on a proposed mask ordinance that the Bronson administration and his supporters vehemently opposed. The meetings resulted in frequent clashes between the mayor’s administration and the Assembly, and the struggle came to a head during one meeting when Bronson’s administration asserted control over the Assembly chambers, pulling security guards during a packed and unruly meeting and removing a plexiglass shield standing between testifiers and Assembly members that was being used as a COVID-19 mitigation measure.

Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy voted against the ordinance Wednesday. (Member John Weddleton was absent for the vote.)

The changes dictates that all city resources needed to conduct a meeting be made available, such as security, information technology support, audio and visual equipment, and personnel, heating and cooling, and other resources.

“No person shall act to frustrate, or unreasonably deny to the presiding officer municipal resources needed to exercise the presiding officer’s management authority over assembly premises,” the ordinance states.

The mayor immediately decried the ordinance as a “power grab being conducted by the Anchorage Assembly” during his opening comments at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting.

He argued that a part of state statute gives mayors purview over all municipal property except that of the school district.

“This proposed ordinance here tonight undermines Alaska statute and the charter of Anchorage and undermines the authority of the people of Anchorage grants to any mayor. This is unprecedented and clearly represents partisan motives by the Anchorage Assembly to do things that they were not elected to do,” Bronson said.

Chair LaFrance said that traditionally the chair has had the authority to exercise control over Assembly meeting spaces, and that the ordinance clarifies that authority in code and does not change the balance of authority between the Assembly and the mayor.

“We have 50 years of custom and tradition, where we have seen some departure in unprecedented ways from observance of those customs,” LaFrance said Tuesday.

The Assembly also last month hired law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot to help deal with separation of powers disputes with the administration. Assembly leaders have said that Bronson and his administration are overstepping the bounds of the city’s separation of powers, while the administration has said that the Assembly has shown a lack of respect for the executive branch.

Confirmation of mayor’s executive appointments

In another ordinance, the Assembly made updates to city code that change how executive appointments are made in mayoral administrations.

LaFrance and Constant have said code changes were needed to prevent mayors from appointing department heads and forgoing Assembly confirmation for long periods of time, circumventing the Assembly’s oversight of appointments. The ordinance states that “some of Bronson’s appointments have been controversial” and notes that the Assembly has rejected two appointees.

The code changes require the mayor to submit the appointee for Assembly approval within 60 days of hire. Previously, the mayor could wait up to six months to submit an appointee for confirmation.

It also gives the Assembly the power to schedule a confirmation vote at any time 60 days after the person is hired, regardless of whether the mayor submits the person for confirmation.

The ordinance passed in a 9-2 vote after a lengthy amendment process, with members Allard and Kennedy voting against it.

It prohibits anyone from temporarily taking on the duties of an executive position for longer than 60 days, although there are three exceptions to that rule. For example, if a department director is temporarily absent for a medical reason for longer than 60 days but was expected to eventually return, someone not confirmed by the Assembly could fill the position for longer than 60 days.

Assembly members introduced the ordinance after a series of clashes with Bronson over the qualifications of some of his executive appointments, including Bronson’s initial pick for library director, Sami Graham, and his second pick, Judy Norton Eledge. The Assembly rejected Graham over concerns that she did not have the necessary qualifications, so Bronson immediately named Graham his chief of staff. He later appointed Eledge to the role, though Assembly members also said Eledge was not qualified. She recently stepped down to the position of deputy director, which does not require confirmation.

The Assembly on Wednesday rejected a proposed amendment from Allard and Kennedy, who generally side with Bronson on policy issues. The rejected amendment attempted to limit the Assembly’s confirmation powers by changing code so that if it failed to confirm three of the mayor’s consecutively appointed choices for a position, the third would become automatically confirmed.

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