The Anchorage Assembly is taking the extremely rare step of weighing emergency measures to curb some mayoral powers as members scramble to mitigate what they say are major risks to the municipality in light of recent allegations made by fired Municipal Manager Amy Demboski.
The Assembly met behind closed doors in an executive session Thursday night to discuss potential actions to limit what several believe are serious liabilities to the city’s welfare and essential services.
“The letter from former Municipal Manager Demboski is now in the public record,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said after the executive session. “The statement contains very serious allegations of mismanagement of municipal resources, so Assembly leadership is taking steps to protect those resources. We are focused on good governance and intend to strengthen the code.”
The legislative body is limited in what measures it can take to rein in the executive branch. Part of the justification for moving discussions out of public view and into executive session was for members to openly discuss financial risks to the municipality in light of concerns about future lawsuits, and “so that we can be briefed by Assembly counsel on the municipality’s potential exposure,” LaFrance said Thursday evening.
Though under city code, Mayor Dave Bronson would typically be able to participate with members in the executive session, he was not present at Thursday’s meeting. The Assembly voted that given he is named in a letter from Demboski’s attorney threatening litigation if a settlement is not reached in her wrongful termination claim, Bronson had a clear conflict of interest that precluded him from attending the session or having access to records of the proceedings.
“At the executive session, we asked Assembly counsel what actions the Assembly can or cannot take to address the current crisis,” Vice Chair Christopher Constant said.
What emerged were three emergency orders that will be voted on during a second special meeting on Friday evening.
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 of unlawful and unethical conduct against the Bronson administration. If approved, the measures would be temporary, lasting for 60 days.
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,” according to the proposal. The measure cites millions of dollars in construction work above what the Assembly approved carried out on the mayor’s proposed homeless navigation center in East Anchorage.
In laying out the need for new limits on the administration’s contracting powers, the ordinance also cites a claim in the Demboski letter: “We do not know how many contracts may have been inappropriately executed.”
The issue recently rose to the fore again around snow plowing and hauling contracts, with Assembly members raising concerns the administration was violating rules by hastily enlisting businesses contracted to remove snow from Eagle River and Hillside service areas to work inside the Anchorage Bowl after last month’s winter storms and the city’s sluggish response.
“The Assembly in the last year has repeatedly had to delay Municipal business due to errors in items for contracts and appropriations brought for its approval,” the emergency ordinance states.
In addition to dropping the contracting threshold, it would require additional information be provided to the Assembly as part of the procurement process.
“Mayor Bronson is still evaluating the proposed changes,” a spokesman for the mayor said when asked for comment on the emergency orders.
Another of the emergency measures comes in response to accusations from city workers made public this week. They alleged that a member of the administration said the mayor’s office tried to track who was visiting the ombudsman, the municipality’s independent investigating authority, and interacting with Assembly members by downloading security camera footage from City Hall.
“The current Administration has allegedly demonstrated a shocking disregard for the existing procedural safeguards, including but limited to those outlined in Municipal Code, 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 ordinance states.
The measure shores up and further clarifies protection for the ombudsman’s office and procedures for reporting concerns to the ombudsman and staff.
The last item in the package would extend the de facto period of service for individuals serving on local boards and commissions beyond a looming February deadline and into April.
“(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 that 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 are likely to become involved in the misconduct alleged to have taken place in City Hall, including the Board of Ethics, Employee Relations Board, and Zoning Board of Examiners and Appeals.
“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 document.
The Assembly’s special meeting is scheduled to take place in City Hall at 3 p.m. Friday.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the emergency orders were introduced by Assembly member Meg Zaletel. Zaletel introduced two of the orders with Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance and Vice Chair Chris Constant, and Constant and LaFrance introduced the third.