Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson says he wants to defund the nonprofit that works with the city’s community councils after its manager, at a recent meeting with Girdwood residents, indicated he’d advised the residents on a strategy to kill a housing development proposal.
The manager, Mark Butler, also appeared to make political statements against Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who is running in this year’s election, at one point suggesting residents frustrated with Constant could vote against him. Butler advised against getting “in his face,” adding, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
The Federation of Community Councils receives an annual grant from the Anchorage Assembly to provide support services to the 37 community councils. That $90,000 grant comes with a contract that stipulates the grantee cannot endorse or oppose any candidate for public office.
The contract also prohibits political activity, including for local or state measures. However, the contract specifies that it’s not a violation to assist community councils in “disseminating information concerning measures on which that council has formally established a position.”
Butler said in an interview Wednesday that’s exactly what he did, although he acknowledged some of his comments about Constant could be perceived as political and that “was a mistake,” though not his intention.
“I assist community councils and their members with their efforts to offer advice to local elected officials and agencies of the government. That’s my job,” he said. Butler is one of two paid employees at the federation.
The mayor and others say he went too far and helped some opponents of the controversial Girdwood housing development proposal, Holtan Hills, craft a strategy to quash the project.
It’s not yet clear whether Butler, also vice chair of the North Star Community Council, has broken contract rules.
The municipality’s charter requires the establishment of community councils “to afford citizens an opportunity for maximum community involvement and self-determination.” Anchorage has 36 councils, plus Girdwood’s Board of Supervisors, with rules and recognition of the councils outlined in city code. They serve in an advisory role.
The federation, on the other hand, is not required in the city’s charter. It’s a nonprofit created by the councils, with a board made up of delegates from each community council, established to assist the councils in their work and provide administrative, technical and other support.
Butler’s salary is paid with some of the funds from the annual grant from the Assembly. The city grant is the federation’s primary source of funding.
Because the federation’s grant is signed by the Assembly chair and administered by the municipal clerk, Bronson doesn’t have the authority on his own to pull the grant funding, Assembly Vice Chair Constant said. But Assembly leaders also say they will look into the issue further with the full membership next month.
“The contract spells out some specific penalties,” Constant said, though he added that the Assembly would have to discuss the matter as a whole. “We will discuss it and come to a path in April,” he said.
Housing development tensions
The Assembly last month voted down the controversial Holtan Hills development proposal, which called for the creation of more than 100 homes, condominiums and multifamily units and would have transferred 60 acres of city-owned land in Girdwood to a local developer. Many Girdwood residents, and the five-member Girdwood Board of Supervisors, the local governing body, had vocally opposed the project. Residents showed up at Assembly meetings in droves to oppose it, and some lobbied community councils in other areas of the municipality to join in opposition.
The mayor on Tuesday lashed out against Butler and the nonprofit in statements on social media.
“In light of recent media coverage concerning the Federation of Community Council’s Manager engaging in political activity, working to kill the Holtan Hills housing development in Girdwood, and receiving financial compensation from people in Girdwood for these efforts, I am exploring options to take back the taxpayer grant funds provided to the FCC. We cannot have an FCC Manager undermining Municipal projects, engaging in political activity, and accepting monetary compensation while acting in their official capacity,” Bronson said Tuesday.
Bronson’s threat followed the publication of an article earlier this month on political website The Alaska Landmine, which detailed Butler’s statements as he moderated a Feb. 25 event in Girdwood.
Per a recording of the event, Butler said he had advised a group of Girdwood residents and property owners after they reached out to him about the Holtan Hills proposal last year.
At one point, Butler said he had also told them to use the experience, win or lose, to build a better sense of community, build institutions and build relationships.
That’s when he spoke about Constant, who voted in favor of Holtan Hills:
“Chris Constant, even though he trashed you guys big time, I understand, during the meeting, right? And called you names and stuff, which is more of his style. That’s the Chris Constant we know. We’re constituents, he’s up for reelection this time. We get to decide whether to vote for him or not.”
Butler then made a thumbs-down gesture, according to the Landmine’s report.
“And still, don’t go and get in his face,” Butler continued. “Don’t try to take him out. Revenge is a dish best served cold, because you, for your community, may need his vote one day, OK,” Butler continued.
The mayor’s office in an email said Bronson believes Butler broke the rules banning political activity, violating the contract. Under that contract, the city and the FCC can terminate the contract if the other “fails in any material way to perform its obligations” under the agreement.
“Mr. Butler made political statements about a sitting Assembly member currently running for re-election,” the mayor’s office said.
In an interview, Butler said he hadn’t disparaged Constant and that the intent of his comment was not political. The point was to urge them to seek allies, even among those who had opposed them on an issue, he said.
“I did a kind of a so-so sign as a joke to them, you know, kind of like Hawaiian hang loose, my thumb and all fingers out like that. And that was it. No one said anything about it. I didn’t put him down,” Butler said.
Constant represents North Anchorage, meaning Girdwood residents, voting in South Anchorage, won’t see him on their ballots.
“I guess it was perceived I was doing political stuff, you know, I was advocating for that,” Butler said. “OK, I guess that could be perceived that way. It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about it, but hey, just make sure you get as many friends as you can.”
‘If your goal is to stop a project, change the way you talk about it’
Speaking during the February meeting, Butler said he’d advised the group to present the issue during community council meetings around the city as the best way to lobby Assembly members, who attend those meetings.
“My suggestion was ... if your goal is to stop a project, change the way you talk about it,” he said.
He said he told them to speak as a neighborhood: “We’re a community. We live here. We recreate here, we raise kids here, and all those kinds of things — just like my neighborhood, and Turnagain and all the different neighborhoods of town — and say, ‘We want development, but we want good development. And we would like to define what that development is.’ ” Butler said he’d advised them to “get away from specifics.”
“There are people that could be in favor of this project or against it, that are experts on it, but it gets away from the topic. The topic is, you want to convince, if that’s your goal, convince seven of 12 people to vote no on this proposal, if that’s what you want,” Butler said.
Girdwood Board of Supervisors co-chair Mike Edgington said that Butler wasn’t advising the board or its Land Use Committee, which essentially functions as Girdwood’s community council. Girdwood residents can participate and vote in that committee, which acts as an advisory body, much like a community council. Butler had advised individual citizens on their efforts to oppose Holtan Hills.
“The nuance, I would say, is that advising people on how to get in contact with community councils, how to present a case to community councils, that’s not a partisan issue at all. It’s not a problem,” Edgington said. “Obviously, advising on how to craft a very specific message with some particular outcome in mind is a problem.”
Edgington, who attended the meeting Butler spoke at, said he doesn’t know whether Butler crossed the line when advising citizens, but that “definitely, some of the comments he made in the meeting were close to that.”
“I don’t know what the other activity was beforehand,” he said.
Butler’s comment about Constant and his reelection campaign did appear to be an issue, Edgington said.
One comment Butler made during the February meeting suggested he may have asked for overnight accommodations in the resort community, in exchange for moderating the meeting. Butler during an interview on Wednesday said he did not receive compensation. He’d moderated the meeting on a day off and stayed in a spare room in a private home, he said.
During a monthly meeting of the Federation of Community Councils on Wednesday evening, a few delegates from community councils expressed concern about Butler’s comments.
It’s incredibly important for the federation “to maintain the public trust,” said Airport Heights delegate Amanda Moser, also saying the comment about Constant’s reelection was inappropriate. Moser said she thinks the direction he gave Girdwood residents about the approach they should take was outside of the nonpartisan behavior the federation wants to maintain.
Some others expressed strong support for Butler, who has long held the manager position.
Gretchen Stoddard, chair of the federation, said the board is looking into the issue and held an executive session with Butler. She told the federation delegates that the board would meet again soon and report back on their agreed path forward.
“The FCC board believes in the mission of the Anchorage Community Council system and that Mark Butler has helped many citizens successfully navigate municipal issues for years. Community councils and Mark Butler help people participate in local meetings, collect information through the community network. The board has worked with Mark for years. He has been involved as he helps community members navigate political and controversial issues,” she said.
The mayor’s office, in an email, said it will ask the city’s Department of Law to review the issue.