The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday approved legislation that permanently curbs the ability of the mayor and his administration to rubber-stamp city contracts. The ordinance lowers the monetary threshold that triggers a requirement for Assembly approval of some contracts.
The change comes as the Assembly continues efforts to increase oversight and put a check on the spending power of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration after fired municipal manager Amy Demboski accused the mayor and some of his officials of illegal contracting and other unethical behavior.
The ordinance, approved on a 9-1 vote, is meant to ensure that more contracts get Assembly review “rather than being granted in trust, because the trust has really been challenged between the administration and the Assembly,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said. He sponsored the legislation alongside Chair Suzanne LaFrance and member Meg Zaletel.
The ordinance follows changes to contracting and procurement enacted by the Assembly in one of three emergency measures passed earlier this year following Demboski’s allegations. Those ordinances expire on March 21. Tuesday’s ordinance will take effect that same day.
Competitively bid contracts for supplies, services or construction that cost the city $150,000 or more will require Assembly approval, rather than the previous threshold of $500,000. The legislation also lowers the amounts that trigger Assembly approval for increases to contracts with initial costs of more than $50,000.
Bronson opposed the changes, saying the emergency ordinance has burdened the Purchasing Department and increased the workload of city staff, and called it “microscopic management of the purchasing process by the Assembly.”
“That’s what’s creating the very burdensome workload on all of our departments. That includes 32 purchasing officers ... in the various departments and the entire Purchasing Department — to the point where I’ve had employees approach me from the Purchasing Department with over 20 years of experience saying they’re looking at quitting because of these emergency orders,” Bronson said.
Tuesday’s ordinance did not go as far as the emergency ordinance in curbing the administration’s spending authority, which required Assembly approval of all contracts costing $10,000 or more. It also did not lower the thresholds for approval of sole-source contracts.
“The emergency ordinances passed, and extraordinary action was taken, because of the failure of the leadership of the executive and the oversight to ensure that accurate information was provided to the Assembly amidst a myriad of allegations of financial impropriety, and frankly, corruption,” Zaletel said.
During a sometimes heated debate between the mayor and some Assembly members about Tuesday’s legislation, Constant referred to one major contracting issue that occurred last fall.
The administration, without Assembly approval, green-lit millions in construction work on a now-defunct project to build a homeless shelter in East Anchorage.
Tuesday’s legislation will help ensure the Assembly knows what promises the administration is making to contractors beforehand, Constant said.
“We are careening now toward a real crisis in our charter, because of the desire of the administration to fund, without Assembly approval, contracts for their priorities — and then when they’re caught, to pay off the people that they made those deals with,” Constant said. “So this is an important part in the effort to bring compliance by this administration by shortening the leash in which they’re allowed to act freely.”
Bronson countered Constant’s statement, saying the administration made a mistake with the homeless shelter project and has admitted the error and called the emergency ordinance “entirely onerous and problematic” for city employees.
LaFrance and other members said they have appreciated a recent improvement in communication and increase in information from administration officials, also noting that Tuesday’s legislation considerably loosens the constraints of the emergency ordinance.
“Unfortunately, this is the cost of doing business in this environment. It is going to take time to build trust. It is going to take time to assure competency, and this is the position we’re in right now,” she said.