Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly says Bronson administration report lacks answers about hiring of former Health Department director

Joe Gerace

After issuing a subpoena to the city’s human resources director and holding a closed session on Tuesday, Anchorage Assembly leaders said they weren’t satisfied with the Bronson administration’s report and will continue to press for answers about the hiring of former Health Department director Joe Gerace.

Anchorage Chief Human Resources Officer Niki Tshibaka provided the report Tuesday night after being subpoenaed, but Assembly leaders said it provided little new information or details that were not already public.

“Unfortunately, the administration’s findings presented to the Assembly in executive session lacked details that would help our municipality understand and move beyond this troubling issue,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said in a written statement late Tuesday night. “As a result, the Assembly will continue to monitor this issue and press the administration to provide answers.”

“The public has been seeking answers on the Gerace issue for months, and Assembly leadership sent a letter with questions to the administration in September 2022. After all this time, our community deserves to see the contents of this report,” LaFrance said.

On Tuesday, Assembly members voted to release the tapes of the meeting to the public. But by Wednesday afternoon, after consulting attorneys, Assembly leaders had begun to walk back the decision to immediately release the tapes. Vice Chair Chris Constant sent the city clerk a written motion to reconsider Tuesday night’s vote to immediately release the recording — and called upon the administration to instead make its report public.

“I want to offer the administration one last opportunity to release what the public should rightfully possess: A document and recording from which they can draw their own conclusions about the seriousness with which the administration endeavored to investigate the Gerace disaster,” Constant said in his email to the clerk. “Should the Administration opt to continue their charade and hide behind personnel rules as the reason for not releasing this so-called report, I intend to ask the body to proceed with litigation so that a judge can decide.”

Gerace resigned in August, just before the publication of an investigation that revealed he fabricated or exaggerated credentials and work history on his resume to the city.

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Immediately after that, Mayor Dave Bronson said his administration was launching an investigation into the city’s hiring practices. But that investigation has been conducted by officials who oversaw Gerace’s hiring, and Assembly leadership also said its members would begin an inquiry.

The Bronson administration has given scant info to the public about its investigation. The administration and municipal attorneys had refused to release its findings without a subpoena and an executive session, citing a constitutional right to privacy for personnel records under the Alaska Constitution.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel had moved to immediately release the recording of Tuesday night’s executive session, and members voted 7-4 in favor of releasing the tape. But the move to reconsider that vote means no records will be made public yet. The Assembly will likely hold a reconsideration vote at its Feb. 7 meeting, Constant said.

On Monday, the Assembly voted unanimously to activate its chair’s subpoena powers. Chair LaFrance issued a subpoena to Tshibaka to appear in the Assembly chambers on Tuesday and bring with him all documents, communications and investigation materials or reports related to Gerace’s hiring, vetting and eventual termination.

In the hours before the executive session, Anchorage’s Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen said she was resigning from the city. Christensen said she gave her resignation letter to the mayor on Monday, saying she has “a new opportunity.”

The Assembly has been seeking legal advice on how to publicly release the administration’s report, which Tshibaka gave members during the executive session. Attorneys in a memo advised that the Assembly take the matter to a court for a judge to decide what portions of the report should be public.

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On Tuesday night, the Assembly’s attorney, Dean Gates, cautioned members against releasing the recording, because municipal attorneys have asserted Tshibaka’s written report is a protected document.

“The purpose and nature of our executive sessions discuss matters involving consideration of government records that by law are not subject to public disclosure. That privileged status was asserted, and I would not recommend releasing the tapes of our discussion and our consideration of the document until that document is actually released or no longer subject to privilege,” Gates told Assembly members Tuesday night before their vote.

The administration’s municipal attorneys have asserted that the document has “deliberative privilege,” he said, which is an exemption in public records laws that can keep pre-decisional materials out of the public eye.

Constant pushed back on Gates’ opinion, saying the administration “can argue we’re going to deliberate on this forever, and in this sense provide a couple of pages of writing and purport that that’s the result of an investigation. That’s a very interesting analysis.”

Whether the document is privileged or not may be a matter for a court to decide, Gates said.

“That might be where we’re headed. I’m not sure,” he said.

Members of the public made multiple accusations against Gerace in 2021 as the Assembly was considering confirming him. The allegations came largely from former colleagues and employees he had supervised at previous workplaces. Those accusations related to his behavior in the workplace, including sexism toward female employees, along with concerns about qualifications and safety.

Tshibaka at the time publicly defended Gerace, calling the accusations false and an attempt at character assassination.

Tshibaka is also at the center of a lawsuit against the city by the former director of Anchorage’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Heather MacAlpine. She was fired while investigating employee workplace complaints about the Anchorage Public Library’s deputy director, Judy Eledge. MacAlpine says a T-shirt supporting Eledge that Tshibaka later wore to a library board meeting supports her claim that she was fired over her investigation.

Tuesday’s developments in the Assembly’s inquiry on the Gerace matters follow several chaotic weeks in city government. Recent upheaval within Bronson’s administration began in December, when Bronson fired former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, who later publicly accused the administration of unlawful and unethical conduct, gender discrimination and a hostile work environment.

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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.

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