Anchorage

No-shows by Bronson officials at meetings leads to dispute between Assembly members and municipal manager

Anchorage Assembly members are clashing with municipal manager Amy Demboski after administration officials didn’t attend some committee meetings.

The Assembly members say important work is being hindered because they can’t question officials, while Demboski says the administration can instead provide answers in writing and that Assembly members are not in charge of Bronson officials’ schedules.

Members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, such as health department leaders, have not attended monthly meetings with the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness since October, said the committee’s chair, Felix Rivera. Likewise, health department leaders did not attend a Health Policy Committee meeting this month, said committee chair Kameron Perez-Verdia.

Demboski intervened in both cases, having implemented a policy that all Assembly members must route requests for information from city departments through her.

Typically, representatives from relevant city departments attend Assembly committee meetings to provide updates, data and information and to collaborate, Perez-Verdia said.

“I‘m at a loss as to what’s going on. It’s very different from past practice,” he said.

In email exchanges with Assembly members about the meetings, Demboski has said that due to operational needs and staff constraints, and in one case a short 24-hour notice, health department senior staff would not attend the meetings.

Demboski has asked committees to send questions in writing, saying the administration would also respond in writing.

In a statement, the mayor’s office said the administration “evaluates requests for appearances on a case-by-case basis, evaluation is done based on need, operational priorities, and available resources. We will continue to operate in a manner that is an effective and efficient use of municipal resources.”

Senior Bronson administration officials and department staff have attended meetings with the Assembly’s other committees and some work sessions.

The mayor’s office did not answer questions about why its staff had been absent from some meetings or whether they would attend upcoming meetings.

The recent absences have had “a huge impact,” Rivera said. “A lot of the times in the committee meetings, we’re delving into specific policy work and specific issues in our community that are critical. ... It has really hampered a lot of the critical work that the committee is supposed to do.”

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Assembly leaders say that because municipal officials and staff aren’t attending some meetings, they have not been able to ask questions key to city business. Committees do legwork on specific issues such as homelessness and COVID-19, and bring recommendations and information to the entire Assembly to help inform votes, Rivera said. They also provide oversight and policy direction, Rivera said.

“We’re not able to do either of those things if the administration isn’t willing to play ball,” Rivera said.

On Tuesday, Rivera sent an email to Dave D’Amato, deputy director at the health department, asking him to join a Housing and Homelessness Committee meeting on Wednesday. Demboski replied in an email to Rivera saying because the request was made with less than 24-hours notice and did not follow the administration’s internal communication process, D’Amato would be unable to attend.

“After evaluation of operational need, staff constraints, and an inadequate basis for staff participation, the Administration is inviting you to send questions to me in writing (or to the AHD Director, with me cc’d), and we will do our best to answer your questions in writing as this will be the most efficient use of staff time,” Demboski wrote.

Rivera subsequently postponed the meeting after a technical issue with the public notice.

In an email to Demboski, Rivera said he found many of her statements “troubling.” He said his reminder to D’Amato was “not an invitation” and that he should not have to include Demboski on an email about a meeting reminder.

“As chair of the committee, I expect staff to attend to support its work. Especially staff which lead a division within the Anchorage Health Department named ‘Housing and Homelessness,’” Rivera said. “Never in the decade long history of this committee has any chair had to officially request staff to attend this important committee which, I can state unequivocally, has critical life and death discussions.”

Demboski replied to Rivera’s email and said that in recent years the lines between the executive and legislative branches of city government have been blurred.

“I want to be very clear: you do not control/direct/dictate to executive staff the administrative functions of their positions,” she wrote.

She went on to list multiple grievances between the Assembly and the administration, including the Assembly’s rejection of Bronson’s choice for library director and a recent power struggle over control of the Assembly chambers.

“There have been many firsts over the past 7 months,” Demboski said.

“... Never in the decades-long history of the City has an Assembly attempted to move the Administration from their rightful, and historic, location at Assembly meetings,” she said. “Never in the decades-long history of the City has an Assembly publicly disparaged a Mayoral appointment as to harm their reputation.”

In another instance, Perez-Verdia sent an email to Health Department Director Joe Gerace with topics for discussion ahead of the Health Policy Committee meeting in early January. Demboski replied, saying Gerace had other commitments and asked the committee to submit questions in writing.

It’s not clear whether health department leaders will attend the upcoming meeting in February, Perez-Verdia said.

Leaders from other city departments have attended other committee meetings, including police and fire department leadership joining the Public Safety Committee meetings, Perez-Verdia said.

“So there’s something happening that’s different with the Health Department and the administration and their willingness to get involved in the work at this committee level,” Perez-Verdia said.

Rivera and Perez-Verdia said they appreciate written responses from the administration, but those do not replace opportunities for discussion, collaboration and follow-up questions at meetings, which typically occur monthly and are an hour or two long.

Rivera said he has questions to ask the administration about current homelessness policy, such as whether FEMA reimbursements for the mass care shelter and quarantine operations the city stood up in response to the homelessness pandemic will come through. He also has outstanding questions about whether there have been changes in capacity and staffing at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter, homelessness camp abatement and more, he said.

“We’re not able to ask any of those questions. It’s actually having public health and safety impacts on the people we are trying to serve,” Rivera said.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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