The Anchorage Assembly on Friday took the rare step of passing three emergency measures to curb Mayor Dave Bronson’s powers in an effort to confront allegations raised by fired Municipal Manager Amy Demboski.
The Assembly approved what Chair Suzanne LaFrance described as “extraordinary measures” in a special meeting at City Hall, eight floors below Bronson’s office. Though the mayor was not present, several members of his administration were on hand to answer questions. The Assembly went into a closed-door executive session the night before to discuss sensitive issues underlying the ordinances, but Friday saw no such move, with the entirety of the meeting conducted publicly.
The measures pertain to contracting, the office of the city’s ombudsman and filling out appointments to municipal boards and commissions. All of them, according to the Assembly, are a direct response to allegations against the Bronson administration of unlawful and unethical conduct. If approved, the measures would be temporary, lasting for 60 days.
The justification for taking such rapid steps, according to several Assembly members, are the risks posed to the municipality’s essential services and workforce by claims outlined in a letter issued by Demboski’s lawyers, with allegations including a climate of harassment, unlawful contracting practices, retaliation and unethical conduct.
“The types of action we’re proposing having to take are in order to ensure the municipality’s interests. We weren’t expecting to be here a week ago,” said member Meg Zaletel, who had a hand in drafting the ordinances.
“Mayor Bronson is still evaluating the proposed changes,” a spokesman for the mayor said when asked for comment on the emergency orders.
One concerns how the administration handles contracting for goods and services. It lowers the threshold for both sole source and competitive contracts to $10,000, a significant drop from the current levels at $30,000 and $500,000, respectively.
“The current Administration under Mayor Bronson’s leadership has in recent times admitted to failures to comply with Anchorage Municipal Code Title 7, Purchasing and Contracts and Professional Services,” the measure reads. It cites millions of dollars in construction work by Roger Hickel Contracting above what the Assembly approved to be carried out on the mayor’s proposed homeless navigation center in East Anchorage.
“Services under contract have often started before Assembly approval. And frankly, it’s put us in quite a pickle with Hickel,” Zaletel said.
Members debated several technical amendments to the measure, which ultimately passed 10 to 2, the dissenting votes coming from Eagle River’s Kevin Cross and South Anchorage’s Randy Sulte. Both expressed reservations about creating more work for municipal staff and overreaching micromanagement by the legislative branch.
“Is there a risk that we create a bottleneck in purchasing?” asked Cross.
Ultimately, members supported measures that will require more transparency and accountability in procurement and contracting by the administration and municipal staff, though several mentioned that the rapidity with which the changes are being made will likely necessitate revisions in the near future.
“It’s an emergency, so it was done in an emergency fashion,” Zaletel said. “This isn’t meant to feel punitive; this is meant to offer an opportunity for continuing collaboration.”
Another item in the package extends the de facto period of service for individuals serving on local boards and commissions beyond a looming February deadline and into April.
“The purpose of this emergency ordinance is to make sure the functioning of certain boards and commissions can continue,” Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said before the measure passed unanimously.
“(The) Assembly hereby specifically finds that the inability of many municipal boards and commissions to meet for lack of a quorum due to existing vacancies or to those created by expiration of extended terms on February 11, 2023 has the potential to significantly delay decisions on individual rights, property rights, ethics questions from public officials, processing legislation in accordance with Code, and substantially and significantly disrupt Municipal governance and operations to the extent it is an emergency and now requires immediate action,” according to the measure. “Failure to immediately address these issues will likely result in an insufficiency of services substantial enough to endanger the public health, safety, or welfare.”
Though attention in the past has focused on battles over the mayor’s executive appointments, there have also been a number of nominees to boards and commissions who the Assembly “found unqualified for the position or unexperienced in the subject area and as a result not confirmed by a vote,” the proposed ordinance says. Now, several of those entities are at risk of not having enough members to meet a quorum, effectively paralyzing them.
Of the boards and commissions potentially affected, several — including the Board of Ethics, Employee Relations Board and Zoning Board of Examiners and Appeals — are likely to become involved in evaluating the misconduct alleged to have taken place in City Hall.
“This emergency ordinance will immediately prevent crippling the ability of several boards and commissions to meet quorum and fulfill their duties for an additional sixty days providing time for confirming appointments or taking other legislative action to address the circumstances described herein,” according to the measure.
The emergency measure that elicited the most heated discussion during the meeting is one shoring up protections and powers for the municipal ombudsman’s office and procedures for reporting concerns to the ombudsman and staff.
“The current Administration has allegedly demonstrated a shocking disregard for the existing procedural safeguards,” the measure says, including “a disdain for oversight, and a wanton disrespect for the rights of its employees and residents, resulting in numerous complaints alleging hostile work conditions, sexual harassment, retaliatory personnel practices, improper contracting procedures, and improperly committing municipal funds.”
The measure resolves a long-running dispute over whether the city’s ombudsman can access personnel files held by the human resources department during the course of an investigation. Multiple administrations have said they do not need to open such files, but members of the Assembly say that’s become a tactic for blocking accountability for misconduct, particularly during the tenure of Bronson Human Resources Director Niki Tshibaka, whom they’ve criticized for openly siding with the mayor and conservative allies.
“The emergency is that we do not have a functioning human resources leadership at this time. We have allegations of spying to keep people away from the ombudsman. Why would they spy? To create fear,” said Constant. “This administration is protecting people who are committing acts of hostility against our workforce.”
Constant was referring to a memo sent by Municipal Ombudsman Darrel Hess on Thursday saying multiple city employees accused the mayor’s office of downloading City Hall surveillance footage to see who was talking to both him and Assembly members. Hess referred the matter to municipal attorneys, who then referred it to state prosecutors.
Hess told Assembly members on Friday that in the 18 months since Bronson took office, the number of complaints made to the ombudsman’s office has “ramped up.”
“So many of my current issues that I’m looking at deal with allegations of hostile work environments, harassment,” Hess said. “From what we’re seeing and hearing, morale is pretty low at the municipality, and it’s important that employees have an avenue, have somewhere to go to have their concerns looked at and hopefully addressed. And I do not believe we can provide the sufficient level of service that’s needed at this time without access to records.”
The measure passed 10 to 2, with Cross and Sulte opposed.
During the meeting, the dynamic between Assembly members toward one another and the handful of administration representatives was diplomatic if occasionally brisk. More actions by the Assembly are likely to follow in the weeks ahead as leadership continues evaluating its options. LaFrance warily cautioned everyone present that such long meetings “are likely to continue.”