A group of Anchorage residents, including two former mayors, are trying to get a referendum on the ballot to repeal a newly enacted ordinance that codifies a process for removing a mayor from office for a “breach of the public trust.”
The group filed an application to petition for a referendum with the municipal clerk on Thursday.
The petition’s primary sponsor is former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch, a Republican who held mayoral office, which is technically nonpartisan, from 2000 to 2003. Several other conservative Anchorage politicians have signed the application for a petition, which requires 10 voter signatures. That includes former Mayor Dan Sullivan, and former Assembly members Bill Starr, Crystal Kennedy, Ernie Hall, Debbie Ossiander, Dan Kendall and Erica Johnson, as well as former Assembly member and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell.
The municipal clerk must first review the application before approval of the petition process. Once approved, the group would need to gather at least 7,545 Anchorage voter signatures to get a referendum on a ballot.
The measure added a process to city code by which the Assembly or municipal board of ethics could initiate removal proceedings over 12 different actions considered to be a breach of the public trust, such as perjury, falsifying records or “failure to faithfully execute the directives of a duly enacted ordinance.” The removal process is similar to those that already existed in city code for Assembly and school board members. Mayors can also be removed by voters via a recall effort.
The Assembly passed the legislation last month. The vote was preceded by lengthy and sometimes chaotic public testimony that stretched over two previous meetings and came largely from residents opposing it. Bronson had issued calls for residents to attend the meetings and voice their opposition.
In a Friday interview, Wuerch echoed the concerns that Bronson and many of his supporters have asserted during previous efforts to oppose and block the measure.
The group is applying to petition in an effort to protect the separation of powers between the Assembly and the mayor and to “defend our charter, which picked a strong mayor form of government and has in it procedures to remove a mayor through recall,” Wuerch said.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who proposed the legislation, said the code does not violate the city’s charter — it fulfills a charter directive that states the Assembly “shall” establish removal processes for elected officials.
“The recall power continues to exist, whether this code is in place or not,” Constant said. “The recall process, effectively, is an inherently political process. This process, as established, is inherently a civil law process.”
The process to remove a mayor begins when the Assembly holds a two-thirds majority vote on alleged grounds for removal. Those grounds would then be reviewed for legal sufficiency by the municipal attorney or a third-party attorney hired by the Assembly. If found sufficient, the mayor could then choose a legal representative to defend against the accusations. An agreed-upon officer would conduct a hearing and evaluate the case using a standard of proof of “clear and convincing evidence.” The hearing officer would then make a recommendation to the Assembly. The Assembly would then vote, needing a two-thirds supermajority to unseat a mayor.
“The idea that nine Assembly members — any nine Assembly members of any Assembly — could actually recall a mayor, elected by the citizens at large in Anchorage, is just unfathomable, it seems to me,” Wuerch said. “So that’s why I’ve weighed in on it.”
Assembly members have said the code sets clear boundaries on mayoral power. Constant has said that some of the mayor’s past actions — especially during a chaotic series of meetings over a mask mandate proposal — spurred him to draft the legislation, but he said he does not intend to use the process against Bronson over previous issues. Constant also said he believes the mayor has substantially ignored city code since taking office.
The conservative mayor and the moderate-to-liberal leaning Assembly supermajority have clashed over multiple issues since he took office, including conflict over who has the ultimate authority over city spending, acrid disagreements over the city’s homeless response and power struggles over other issues. Last month, Bronson won a lawsuit against the Assembly over the mayor’s right to fire the city’s chief equity officer without Assembly involvement.