Anchorage

Fired Anchorage city manager accuses Bronson administration of illegal, unethical behavior

Anchorage Assembly meeting

Anchorage’s recently fired city manager is accusing Mayor Dave Bronson of violating multiple city, state and federal laws, blatant sexism, unlawful contracting and other unethical behavior in a letter delivered Wednesday to city leaders.

The letter accuses the mayor of illegally firing former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski in retaliation for “attempting to convince (Bronson) to cease unlawful and unethical activities using municipal resources.”

Among the allegations made by Demboski, who for a year and a half oversaw the day-to-day operation of the Anchorage city government:

• The mayor personally pushed for the signing of sole-source contracts that would have required Assembly approval, against city code. “We believe that there could be approximately ten or more such unlawful contracts,” the letter says.

• Bronson fired a city employee who did not “swing” a contract to a well-connected associate.

• Bronson and Larry Baker, one of his closest advisers, pressured a city employee to sign off on $3.9 million to $4.5 million in construction work on a homeless shelter and navigation center in “knowing violation” of city code and under the belief that the employee would “take the fall” for the decision.

• Over Thanksgiving weekend, the mayor showed up with a firearm at Baker’s house to help with a trespassing call that had already been reported to police.

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• Baker tried to get the city attorney to drop or reduce domestic violence charges against Baker’s business partner. Demboski alleges this was done with the mayor’s “support and blessing.”

• Bronson tolerated sexualized jokes and comments, including the distribution of “genitalia-shaped cookies” while City Hall staff “reported to Ms. Demboski and others that you treat women in the office differently than men.” Demboski alleged she experienced gender discrimination from the mayor firsthand.

Bronson’s office said the mayor wasn’t commenting on the letter.

“The Municipal Attorney’s Office has advised us to not discuss the issues raised ... as they relate to potential litigation matters,” a spokesman for the mayor wrote. Baker did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

The letter threatens to sue Bronson for “retaliatory and unlawful” firing if her demands — which include a “prompt settlement” and a letter of apology — are not met.

The 11-page document makes allegations about topics previously known to the public, such as the decision by the mayor to shut off the fluoride to the city water supply, and details other claims that are becoming public for the first time. It is signed by Demboski’s lawyer, Scott Kendall, who provided a copy to the Daily News when asked.

The allegations against Bronson and his administration throw a hand grenade into city politics. Demboski is a former Assembly member from Eagle River-Chugiak who left the seat to work for Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. She had appeared closely aligned with the mayor since his election and took a hands-on approach to city leadership. She championed Bronson’s policies and regularly represented the mayor in numerous heated public debates with the Assembly.

“I don’t run the city ... Amy Demboski runs the city,” Bronson once said in public remarks.

City Hall

But on Dec. 19, Bronson abruptly announced he had replaced Demboski as city manager and has given no public explanation for her departure.

The next day, the Alaska Landmine website published an anonymously sourced story saying Demboski had been fired after calling Purchasing Director Rachelle Alger a “f—ing c—t.” That day, Demboski told the Daily News that Bronson fired her in retaliation after she sent him two emails that detailed her concerns about Bronson and his officials violating city code, and concerns over gossip, harassment and a hostile work environment within his administration.

While Demboski said that the incident in which she used vulgar language to describe Alger did occur in the days before her firing, the letter calls the website’s story a “fig leaf” meant to conceal the mayor’s real reasons. Bronson was tolerant of her use of foul language and had assured her he would not fire her over the incident, the letter says.

Demboski in the letter accused the mayor of waging a slander campaign against her since he dismissed her from City Hall. The letter accuses Bronson of directing his executive staff members to leak a bogus pretext for her firing to the media.

“Your ongoing behavior following Ms. Demboski’s termination, including slander — and attempts to coerce current municipal employees to slander her reputation using public resources — are compounding her ongoing reputational and financial damages,” Kendall said in the letter.

Kendall is an Anchorage attorney who previously served as chief of staff to former independent Gov. Bill Walker and as a campaign adviser to Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He was a primary architect of the 2020 ballot measure that changed Alaska’s election laws, implementing ranked choice voting and open primaries for statewide and legislative races.

In the demand letter, Demboski called for a settlement, for Bronson to issue a written correction and apology and to sign a binding non-disparagement agreement.

The measures are the “last, best hope for you to avoid litigation,” the letter says.

“We are in shock right now,” Anchorage Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said, speaking also for Chair Suzanne LaFrance.

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The issues Demboski raised about possible code violations and unlawful contracts reaffirm the questions Assembly members have been asking for months and “seems flagrant, if all of this proves to be true,” he said.

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The Assembly will engage in a more thorough investigation of the Bronson administration’s handling of contracts and purchasing, he said. Assembly leaders committed to launching an inquiry soon after Demboski first raised the issues following her firing.

Constant called for the mayor to publicly respond to Demboski’s allegations before any litigation begins.

“He can’t hide behind the veil of litigation, because no litigation is filed. He has an opportunity to clarify the record for the people,” he said. “I think the mayor has a duty to respond to these allegations to the public.”

Issues with city contracts

Several of the claims center on how the administration spends public money and how contracts are awarded and processed.

The letter alleges the mayor illegally gave his full signatory authority to sign contracts to Alger, the purchasing director, without consent from municipal attorneys or Demboski. According to Demboski, the law department later told the mayor he did not have the authority to do so. Bronson then revoked signing authority from Alger.

The mayor personally delegated the signing of multiple contracts that illegally sidestepped necessary Assembly approval, Demboski claims. Those include sole-source contracts of $30,000 or more and lobbyist contracts, which the city manager was then not allowed to review.

The mayor illegally pushed forward with $3.9 million to $4.5 million in work on a contracted project to build his championed East Anchorage homeless shelter in “knowing violation” of city code, Demboski alleges in the letter.

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The mayor and senior policy adviser Baker circumvented the city’s chain of command, including Director of Public Works Lance Wilber, and pressured Maintenance and Operations Director Saxton Shearer to get it done as quickly as possible, the former city manager claims.

Navigation Center

While Shearer signed the work orders, it “appears that this action was taken at your specific direction and under pressure from you and Mr. Baker,” the letter says.

Wilber in October publicly told the Assembly that the administration had made an error. The Assembly then killed the project during an October meeting, citing serious doubts about the administration’s competence.

Demboski at the time pushed the Assembly to move forward with the project.

“The municipality and the contractor have both been operating in good faith based on no less than three Assembly actions that appropriated to the tune of $9 million towards this project,” she said. “It was our intent — we thought we were collaboratively working with the Assembly.”

But Baker was still pressuring Shearer after the Assembly voted to halt the project, Demboski alleges. She was “forced to step in” and go to the construction site with Wilber and the building official to stop the work immediately, the letter says.

Another claim alleges that Bronson fired a different city employee in direct retaliation, in the months following his 2021 inauguration.

The demand letter says the mayor fired a city employee who did not award a substantial city contract to a friend of the mayor’s close associate. The mayor’s associate “cornered this employee and told her she needed to ‘swing’ this contract to his friend,” according to the letter, which did not name the associate. Demboski claims Bronson later acknowledged to her that the firing was a mistake.

Two fired Bronson officials have previously filed lawsuits alleging retaliatory firings, and Demboski is the third to publicly make the claim.

Policy adviser at center of several allegations

Several of Demboski’s complaints against the mayor involve Baker, Bronson’s senior policy adviser.

A former Assembly member, legislator and chief of staff for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, Baker led the mayor’s transition team along with former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell.

Dave Bronson, Mayor of Anchorage, mayor-elect

In the private sector, Baker co-owns a commercial real estate business with partner Brandon Spoerhase, who city prosecutors had charged with misdemeanor domestic violence and stalking in 2019. Those cases were still pending when Bronson was elected.

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Demboski writes that then-Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt came to her twice — once while Bronson was mayor-elect and again after Bronson took office to report that Baker tried to get him to drop the criminal charges against his business partner.

“Mr. Bergt came to Ms. Demboski expressing shock and discomfort about Mr. Baker’s request,” the letter states.

Baker and the mayor have not answered specific questions about allegations Baker tried to interfere in the city criminal case. The Daily News sent the questions this week as part of related, ongoing reporting on previous statements Demboski had made to the city ombudsman. An attorney for Spoerhase said Spoerhase would not be making any comment.

“It was evident to Ms. Demboski that Mr. Bergt strongly believed that Mr. Baker was attempting to use his influence with you to convince Mr. Bergt to have the charges against Mr. Spoerhase dismissed,” the letter says.

Bergt declined to comment, citing concerns that doing so could break legal rules protecting confidential communications between attorneys and clients.

Demboski believes “that Mr. Bergt would have refused to influence the case,” though she doesn’t know the outcome of the case, the letter says. (Court records show Spoerhase ultimately pleaded no contest to one count of violating a protective order, with other city charges dismissed. A state case is still pending.)

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Demboski in the letter alleges that Baker “also attempted to use his influence with (Bronson) to direct real estate transactions towards properties Mr. Spoerhase represents.” No other details were provided in the letter.

The former city manager also accuses the mayor’s office of intentionally executing a string of three sole-source contracts for Baker’s services of just under $30,000 “in almost immediate succession,” with only a three-day break between them. The letter alleges that it’s a “clear violation of the law” limiting the size of the contracts. It does not cite the particular law.

The payment amounts are just below the threshold that would trigger the requirement for Assembly approval. This setup potentially allows Baker to receive his public retirement payments while also essentially working as a city employee, the letter says.

The mayor’s office declined requests from the Daily News earlier this week to interview Bronson about these and other issues regarding Baker, and instead sent an emailed statement:

“Larry Baker was asked to join the Administration on a contract basis due to his vast background in both the executive and legislative branches of our government. Mr. Baker has served as an Anchorage Assembly member, state legislator, and chief of staff under former Mayor Dan Sullivan. There are very few people who have this amount of experience. The Mayor thinks that having this historical perspective is invaluable,” the mayor’s statement said.

The Bronson administration has not provided copies of Baker’s contracts with the city. The Daily News first filed a public records request asking for copies of the contracts on Dec. 19.

On Jan. 5, reporters visited the purchasing department and asked again to view Baker’s contracts. Alger, the purchasing director, said the documents were not yet available because the department had other pending records requests and was busy attending to other city business. She could not say when the documents would be made public.

City Ombudsman Darrel Hess wrote in an email that he could not provide the contracts, citing his ongoing investigation. However, he said, the paperwork should be readily available to the public at City Hall.

“Responding to your records request should not take Purchasing more than 15 minutes,” he wrote.

Multiple other requests by the Daily News for public records have not yet been filled by the purchasing department or the mayor’s office, including a Nov. 11 request for all contracts, work orders, emails and other documents relating to the work done on the now-dead East Anchorage homeless shelter project.

Another allegation involves a Nov. 26 police call to Baker’s home in the Geneva Woods neighborhood.

In that case, Anchorage police received a report of a trespasser at 11:25 a.m. and arrived at Baker’s house at 11:47 a.m., according to an Anchorage Police Department spokesperson. Police arrested a 51-year-old man who is awaiting trial on misdemeanor trespassing charges.

The Daily News had become aware of the police call earlier this month and spoke to the man at the Anchorage jail. Court records show he had previously been kicked out of Sullivan Arena. He said he was visiting Baker’s home to speak to a family member, whom he knew from high school. He said he did not know if Bronson was at the home when he was arrested.

Demboski says in the letter that Baker told her that, despite police being called to the scene, the mayor drove to his adviser’s house “armed with a firearm.”

“Regarding the incident involving Larry Baker’s house, we can’t comment on an active case,” the mayor’s office said.

After the man’s arrest, Bronson personally told a city employee to search for personal information about the man in a confidential database, Demboski alleged. The employee accessed the Alaska Homeless Management Information System in what appears to be a violation of state and federal law, the letter says.

Sexism and other HR issues

One thread of complaints in the demand letter centers on City Hall’s work culture and allegations of gender discrimination and human resources violations.

Bronson encouraged a culture of reprisals and sexism, Demboski alleges in the letter. She claims the mayor showed preferential treatment to two senior staff members, and took no action when one began “passing out genitalia-shaped cookies to the staff.”

In addition, Demboski claims in the letter, Bronson admonished Demboski for criticizing a male subordinate’s email as “suboptimal in tone” and encouraging better communication.

“You chastised Ms. Demboski severely for this email,” the letter says.

“You raised your voice while showing your hands held at different heights to indicate that — because this subordinate is a man Ms. Demboski is a woman — the male employee is ‘up here’ and Ms. Demboski is ‘down there,’” the letter says.

Two days later, Bronson again criticized Demboski for the situation, “telling her that this subordinate employee ‘is a man’ and making it clear to Ms. Demboski that she wasn’t to speak to a man ‘that way,’ ” the letter says.

The letter threatens to take action against the city under various laws protecting employees from illegal firings, including for reasons of gender discrimination.

“Terminating Ms. Demboski, even in part, because she was not docile or subservient enough to you and male members of your administration is unlawful,” the letter says.

Read the letter:

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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. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com

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