[Video above: Watch exchanges between Anchorage Assembly members and Mayor Dave Bronson during Tuesday night’s meeting, when members pressed him to turn over documents and to publicly address allegations and controversies that have engulfed City Hall.]
The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday took a significant first step toward legal action against Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration over its refusal to publicly hand over an internal investigation report and documents into the hiring of former Health Department Director Joe Gerace — even after the Assembly chair twice issued subpoenas for the documents.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, members also slammed the mayor for the series of controversies that have enveloped City Hall under Bronson’s leadership.
One member asked Bronson if he’s considered resigning, while the Assembly’s chair excoriated the mayor for what she called “unprecedented mismanagement” and said his administration and the municipality are “on fire.”
Gerace resigned in August, just ahead of the publication of an Alaska Public Media report that found he had fabricated and exaggerated details on his resume.
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Assembly members on Tuesday passed a resolution in an 11-1 vote that authorizes Assembly attorneys to begin litigation. The Assembly will ask a court to compel the administration to publicly release its reports on Gerace’s hiring and comply with a subpoena issued by Chair Suzanne LaFrance on Feb. 2.
The Assembly’s move to enforce a subpoena came the night before the city’s top attorney worked her last day on the job. Acting municipal attorney Blair Christensen resigned last month. Her last day was Wednesday.
It also comes as the mayor faces threat of a lawsuit from his recently fired city manager.
The February subpoena called for the administration to deliver two documents: a September 2022 document “styled as an investigation” and a January 2023 memorandum based on the September report, according to the subpoena.
It demanded that the city’s top human resources executive, Niki Tshibaka — who abruptly resigned on Monday — turn them over by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen then declined to produce the documents in a Tuesday letter to Assembly leaders. Christensen argued that the documents are confidential, protected by city code and that “releasing such documents would violate code and employees’ constitutionally protected privacy.”
The February Assembly subpoena followed a previous subpoena issued to Tshibaka in January, which summoned him, along with the department’s records, to a closed-door session. Afterward, frustrated Assembly leaders said they received little if any new information that hadn’t already been made public.
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In a heated moment Tuesday night, LaFrance ripped into the mayor for his refusal to honor the second subpoena, his silence on a recent series of allegations against him and his officials, and a recent exodus of his top officials.
At the closed session, “we get nothing, absolutely nothing,” LaFrance said.
“The municipality, the mayor’s administration is on fire. It’s burning. We get nothing. And it’s a little bit ... hard to be here, in our meetings, over and over, where the mayor refuses to talk to the community. He refuses to share information with the Assembly. He refuses to share information with the public. And we’re supposed to go on continuing, ‘Oh, everything’s OK,’” LaFrance said. “It’s not OK. This is a very serious situation. ”
Bronson promised an investigation, and the Assembly and community have received nothing, she said.
“Yes, I am upset. Forgive me. But this is really hard to take, Mr. Mayor, and I don’t understand your behavior. It’s like you don’t give a hoot about our community. So I think it’s time that you address us all and tell us what the heck is going on with your administration.”
Bronson, responding to LaFrance, doubled down on his attorneys’ arguments that personnel matters cannot be made public.
“I understand your emotion. At the end of the day, you need to understand this as a legal issue. The people that need to answer this are over here,” Bronson said, referring to the city attorneys.
“I could order all the documents, whatever, and it, the law department will still refuse. I can order them released. It makes no difference. I don’t know — we’ve been dealing with some of these issues, Blair (Christensen) has, for over a year,” Bronson said. “And the answer is always going to be the same ... in that this is a legal issue. I don’t know how you don’t understand that. But, I just thought I needed to be on the record to summarize what Blair’s been saying for a year.”
Assembly leaders contend that the information isn’t protected and that any protected parts of the reports could be redacted. LaFrance in February had also called on the administration to release the reports, with any information the administration believed to be privileged redacted from the reports, and with a log of the omissions.
LaFrance issued the first subpoena to Tshibaka after city lawyers told members a subpoena and closed session was necessary to discuss personnel records protected by privacy rights in the Alaska Constitution.
On Tuesday, LaFrance and others called that January executive session, essentially, a farce orchestrated by the administration to keep information from the public.
“We were duped into going into executive session. The reason we were given wasn’t really valid. And when we got into executive session, we learned there was nothing confidential there. And that’s a dangerous precedent. It’s us, as the Assembly, the legislative and oversight body that represents the people of Anchorage, being asked to keep this administration’s secrets. And that’s not OK,” Assembly member Meg Zaletel said.
Initially, members had voted after the January executive session to immediately release tapes of the meeting. Before passing the resolution on Tuesday to begin litigation, members rescinded that decision — assembly attorneys had advised the matter be settled by a court.
As administrator of the department, Tshibaka was responsible for overseeing the vetting of Gerace’s experience and qualifications and has been at the center of the Assembly’s ongoing investigation into the matter.
Tshibaka in his resignation letter on Monday said that he’d been directed to vet and onboard Gerace with a “one-day business turnaround.” He did not say who gave him that direction.
When questioned about that by Zaletel on Tuesday night, Bronson said he could not comment on personnel issues, citing the advice of Christensen.
Zaletel pushed back, saying, “Whether or not you asked for additional vetting or actually only asked for a one-day turnaround is a factual issue,” not a legal or personnel issue.
“As it addresses a former employee and current employees in that process ... that is an HR issue, and I think you should know that. I know you feel differently, but the facts are the facts, and this is an HR issue,” Bronson replied.
Since Bronson’s firing in December of former city manager Amy Demboski, turmoil within his administration has rapidly escalated, including a string of resignations of some of his top executives — Christensen, former deputy chief of staff Brice Wilbanks and Tshibaka.
Demboski issued a scathing letter accusing Bronson and members of his administration of unethical behavior, misconduct and fostering a hostile work environment, among other issues.
Recent Daily News reports and interviews with several City Hall workers have corroborated some of Demboski’s claims.
More reports of a hostile work environment have poured into the Anchorage ombudsman’s office from current and former city employees.
The ombudsman referred a case to municipal prosecutors, who then referred it to the state Department of Law, after multiple City Hall employees said they were afraid to make complaints to the ombudsman because an executive had been talking openly about reviewing surveillance footage within the building.
Bronson has largely remained silent over the issues in City Hall. He has refused multiple interview requests and declined to answer questions about Demboski’s allegations, citing the advice of attorneys not to discuss matters of “potential litigation.”
On Tuesday, Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia urged the mayor to speak to the public and address the issues, including “the massive amount of resignations and the toxic work environment.”
“I’d like to give you an opportunity to respond to those — not the HR issues — the issues of the fact that your administration is crumbling. And I’d like to hear from you as to what’s going on and what you’re doing about it,” Perez Verdia said. “The second question is, have you seriously considered resigning?”
Bronson replied that he had not.
“I have not considered resigning in any way, in any fashion whatsoever,” he said. “As to the issues that you are reading about in the media, we are, I think, prepared to have a work session on that, if you are prepared for that.”
Several key executive positions leading the city’s departments are not permanently filled and have only an acting executive working in a temporary capacity.
The extent of vacancies or temporary appointments is not entirely clear, as multiple leadership changes have been made over the last several months. Anchorage’s Human Resources Department has not yet filled a Jan. 26 request by the Daily News for information on top executive positions.
Later Tuesday night, citing serious doubts over the Bronson administration’s competence and the numerous vacancies, the Assembly voted down a long-planned project to build a large new housing development in Girdwood.