Anchorage Assembly leaders said Wednesday they’re preparing to launch an inquiry into how officials in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration have been handling contracts, purchases and whether they’ve followed the city’s laws.
The statement comes one day after former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski told the Daily News that Bronson fired her in retaliation after she raised concerns about city code violations by the mayor and other city officials.
Bronson abruptly announced her departure on Monday with no explanation, a few days after Demboski had emailed the mayor detailed concerns about errors on contracts issued through the Purchasing Department and contracts that were executed in violation of code.
“The Mayor has no comment as it relates to the personnel matter concerning former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski,” Bronson spokesman Hans Rodvik said in an emailed statement.
“The Mayor’s priorities remain the same since his first day in office: be a good steward of property taxpayer dollars, reduce the tax burden on the property owner through an efficient government, spur investment and build more housing, save and rebuild the Port of Alaska, compassionately address the homelessness crisis in our city, reduce crime and make Anchorage a top destination to live, work, and play,” Rodvik said in an emailed statement.
Bronson and his officials have said next to nothing about Demboski’s departure, calling it a personnel manner when asked about it by reporters and an Assembly member during a Tuesday night meeting.
For some working in city government and politics, the lack of information creates problems of its own.
“It’s alarming. It’s worrisome. And we’re looking into it. We will do whatever we need to do to fulfill our duty to protect the interests and finances of the municipality and residents,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in an interview on Wednesday.
LaFrance and Vice Chair Chris Constant said in the Wednesday statement the Assembly is “gathering as much information as possible before drawing a final conclusion.”
The Assembly has limited ability to investigate or take action regarding any improper conduct alleged regarding the mayor’s executives, LaFrance said. Personnel matters are largely in the jurisdiction of the mayor, within the executive branch of city government, she said.
“One thing that’s very clear, as stewards of the municipal treasury, it’s the Assembly’s duty to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent legally and effectively. We’ve already seen this administration put millions of dollars at risk due to allegations concerning personnel and contract improprieties.”
Issues raised about city purchasing department
Three dismissed top city officials have sued Bronson and the city over their firings, all alleging wrongful termination, and two said the firings were retaliatory. Demboski marks the third to publicly make that claim after departing.
In at least one instance, the Bronson administration has violated city code on contracted services.
In October, a top executive acknowledged that officials had pushed ahead with millions in construction work on a planned East Anchorage homeless shelter — without first getting the required Assembly approval to add $4.9 million more to the construction management firm’s contract.
The Assembly halted the project, after members withdrew their support over the mishandling of the contract, and after the city had already sunk around $6 million into it.
In her email to Bronson, Demboski said, “We have had a lot of discussion about errors on contracts, contracts that were executed in violation of code, and concerns I have raised about the ability to effectively administer government, as prescribed by charter, when you granted the Purchasing Director unlimited signing authority, which effectively bypassed me from the process.”
That authority allowed Purchasing Director Rachelle Alger to sign off on large purchases and contracts, including for major city projects, without the city’s manager ever seeing them.
The mayor eventually rescinded Alger’s authority, she said in the email.
“I appreciate your support to rescind that decision, but the challenge remains, we do not know how many contracts may have been inappropriately executed,” Demboski said.
Alger has not responded to emailed questions from the Daily News.
An account published by the Alaska Landmine this week attributed Demboski’s firing to an incident last week when Demboski referred to Alger using vulgar language following a long-running conflict between them. Demboski disputes that she was fired over the inappropriate language, although she said the incident did occur.
Constant said the Assembly must first figure out the scope of their questions and inquiry.
“We’re not inquisitors. What we’re intending to do is get to the facts,” he said. “And so, we’ll be deliberative in that process, which means not shooting from the hip, but being measured and steady in proceeding.”
Questions extend to issues with the city’s recent snow plowing efforts and the administration’s handling of contracts Bronson officials have said they’ve issued to step up plowing in the wake of three large snowfalls, Constant said.
“There are so many questions right now. I don’t have a lot of answers,” Constant said.
Demboski’s departure is a massive shift in leadership within the Bronson administration. The mayor relied heavily on Demboski, who started in the role alongside Bronson when he took office in July of last year. Demboski took a hands-on approach to city management, regularly sitting through Assembly meetings and work sessions, and was frequently called upon by the mayor to speak for him during those meetings.
She came to the position with experience in government: Demboski spent five years on the Assembly, served as Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s deputy chief of staff and as deputy commissioner for the state Department of Commerce.
Fewer than half remain of the more than 30 different top executives and staff members Bronson had selected or retained from the previous administration when he took office. Many of his current top staff members have switched positions, some more than once, and several key officials are serving in an acting capacity. That means they’re either filling in temporarily or awaiting Assembly confirmation.
The hasty shuffle of Bronson appointees was dramatized during an unusual vote taken at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting. Members were set to confirm Kent Kohlhase to the role of public works director. But as of Monday, Kohlhase had been tapped to replace Demboski as acting municipal manager, and was seated up at the dais beside Bronson. The appointment vote was moot, and after a bit of perturbed discussion, the Assembly punted the confirmation vote to January, with the understanding that by then a new municipal manager will be nominated and Kohlhase will return to the public works role.
“It felt a little bit like whiplash,” said Assembly member Daniel Volland, who represents downtown Anchorage.
“We have a number of people who are working in acting roles, and while I think some of those folks are competent, it does cause me concern that we aren’t able to fill these roles in a timely manner,” Volland said. “It kinda makes you ponder why that is. Do people not want to work for the municipality under its current leadership?”
The timing is especially frustrating, according to Volland, because recently some of the more experienced members of Bronson’s cabinet, including Demboski and Chief of Staff Adam Trombley, had helped facilitate gradual improvements between the mayor’s office and Assembly.
“It was beginning to feel like, in the past couple months, inroads were being made between the Assembly and the administration on working together more effectively. It felt like the administration was showing up to our meetings more and there were some clearer lines of communication,” Volland said.
‘This is so frustrating’
Even conservative members of the Assembly who tend to generally align with Bronson expressed concern over Demboski’s departure and the rapid turnover among executive appointees.
“Every position there has its own intrinsic knowledge and specialty, and it’s not typically something you find sitting on the shelf,” said Kevin Cross, who represents Eagle River. “It creates a multitude of problems.”
Cross holds the same seat Demboski held on the Assembly, and says she had a strong working knowledge of how the city runs from both a legislative and executive vantage point.
“Amy was always fantastic because when I would see an ordinance coming out of the mayor’s office, I would often be able to call her and ask her to give me some perspective,” Cross said.
Cross, a self-described conservative representing the reddest constituency in the municipality, said the degree of turnover and controversies cascading out of City Hall have hampered progress on all kinds of issues that are important to his constituents.
“I supported a lot of what the mayor ran on, and I want us to be successful,” Cross said. “I hate politics, I hate that part of it, I just want us to do what’s right for the city … and this is so frustrating.”
“I really want to see the administration communicate more,” said Randy Sulte, who represents South Anchorage.
Sulte thinks that when it comes to turnover and vacancies in executive positions, there is fault beyond just City Hall.
“I do have concerns on the Assembly side that we’re not approving nominations fast enough. It seems like we are postponing to a later day too many times,” he said. “On the administration side, my concern is how people are moving around from role to role.”
Throughout Bronson’s tenure, the Assembly has taken the exceptional step of voting down nominees to head departments, finding some demonstrably unqualified and others with records of offensive statements, or both. Appointments were chilled further after it was reported that Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace fabricated vast swaths of his work history, military affiliations and education. After Gerace abruptly resigned, the mayor announced that the human resources department and municipal manager would initiate a review of hiring practices.
“It’s probably very difficult to find individuals who want to work for the administration if they have to come before a body of individuals they may or may not agree with, and face ridicule,” said Eagle River Assembly member Jamie Allard, referring to appointees who faced public scrutiny for past remarks during the vetting process.
Though Anchorage executive offices have seen a rapid turnover, the Assembly’s membership will likely see significant changes in the coming months: Allard’s is one of seven seats on the body that could see a new representative after the election this spring, owing to a number of different reasons, from term limits to competitive elections. That’s likely to shift the dynamic between the Assembly and administration, particularly given that a number of Bronson’s staunchest critics will depart.