As campaigns for the city’s April 4 election heat up, one West Anchorage Assembly candidate’s personal connection to the Bronson administration has come under scrutiny, eliciting questions about a potential conflict of interest from his opponent and some current Assembly members.
Candidate Brian Flynn is married to Mayor Dave Bronson’s Purchasing Department director, Rachelle Alger. Flynn, who is supported by Bronson, has said the personal relationship should not impact his ability to vote on most contracts and purchases.
Anna Brawley, who’s running against Flynn with support from Assembly member and former acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, said she sees that connection as a potentially crippling conflict of interest for Flynn if he is elected. Brawley has publicly questioned Flynn about the matter during campaign debates.
A large portion of the Assembly’s job is approving or rejecting proposed contracts, purchases and other city spending -- which go to the Assembly for consideration via the Purchasing Department at the recommendation of the mayor and the purchasing director.
That means “his wife’s name is on every purchase that comes before the Assembly and every authorization for procurement of any kind,” said Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who is running for reelection in the North Anchorage Assembly race.
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The general rule in city code dictates that an Assembly member or other public servant can’t participate in official action “in which the public servant or a member of the public servant’s immediate family has a substantial financial or private interest.”
“If 60 or 70% of the Assembly votes that are taken are on contract approvals, then would he just recuse himself for more than half the job?” Brawley said during a recent interview.
Flynn said, “That’s just not the case.”
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Flynn, as well as some current Assembly members, said they believe he wouldn’t need to be recused for most votes on contracts and purchase approvals, because he would not have a financial interest in the items -- meaning he wouldn’t stand to financially lose or gain from the outcome of the votes.
They also contend Flynn wouldn’t have a significant private interest, because contract items go through processes outlined in city code and generally are reviewed by multiple city staff, including the department that needs the contracted service or purchase. Contracts or other expenditures usually support the operations of departments other than Purchasing, such as contracts for snow removal.
Others disagree: “His wife is literally either attesting, concurring or proposing expenditures. There’s no possible way he can be unbiased,” Constant said.
The issue has become a sore spot in a competitive race for the West Anchorage seat.
In this year’s Assembly races for seven open seats, Flynn and other conservative candidates are vying with two incumbents and candidates such as Brawley, who are more aligned with the Assembly’s moderate to progressive majority.
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Brawley said that while campaigning door-to-door, she hears questions from voters concerned or confused about a conflict of interest.
Flynn said his opposition is using the situation as a “negative tool” to build a perception that contracts are directed solely at the behest of the mayor or Alger, to be pushed through the Assembly with Flynn’s vote.
“That’s just simply my opposition making this up,” Flynn said.
Flynn noted that member Meg Zaletel has often recused herself from votes on items regarding homelessness because of her role as the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
“I believe that she’s doing the right thing. And I intend to do the right thing as well,” Flynn said.
“If there was a situation that came up that involved anything directly with my relationship with my wife, of course I would recuse myself,” he said.
Flynn pointed out that Brawley, too, may need to recuse herself in some situations on the Assembly.
Brawley is an employee of Agnew Beck Consulting, a company that the municipality sometimes contracts with for projects. Brawley said she would declare a conflict and recuse herself if the Assembly were facing a vote on an Agnew Beck contract. Brawley stopped work on any projects related to the city since beginning her campaign last year and would not be a part of any projects the company may do for the municipality if elected, she said.
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City code requires Assembly members to disclose potential conflicts of interest before hearing public testimony, deliberating or voting on an item. A member who discloses a potential conflict must then answer a series of questions from the Assembly chair to determine whether it is a significant financial or private interest. The chair then makes an initial ruling, deciding whether the member can participate on the item. That decision can be appealed and overridden with a majority vote of the Assembly.
Outgoing Assembly member Pete Petersen, who has chaired the ethics and election committee for about seven years, disagreed with Brawley and Constant. Petersen said he believes that for most votes, Flynn’s personal relationship would not pose a significant conflict of interest or necessitate Flynn’s recusal.
Petersen said that former Municipal Manager Amy Dembsoki, who was an Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly member from 2013 through 2018, often disclosed a conflict because her husband is an employee in the Anchorage Fire Department.
“Every time that we did anything that had anything to do with the Fire Department she was declaring a potential conflict, which was seemingly almost every meeting,” Petersen said.
It became burdensome, and so “we decided she would be better off just to go to the Board of Ethics and have them come up with a plan or an answer,” he said. The board advised that most items, like buying new fire equipment, did not raise a conflict, Petersen said.
Constant said Demboski’s situation was far more narrow, limited only to agenda items involving the fire department, and her husband did not oversee the department as an executive, he said.
“This is exponentially more,” Constant said.
Flynn’s wife, Alger, is one of the few remaining top executives originally appointed by Bronson when he took office in 2021. (Several executives have resigned, been fired or switched positions.)
“She’s not just an employee of that department. And as the director, the buck stops with her,” Brawley said.
If Flynn is elected, the Assembly can get opinions from its legal advisers and the ethics board. But the power to decide conflict of interest issues ultimately rests with Assembly members, Constant said.
Recently, the Bronson administration has come under intense scrutiny by the Assembly following the departure of Demboski, who wrote a scathing demand letter outlining a series of serious allegations against City Hall after the mayor fired her in December. Demboski accused Bronson and some of his officials of unethical behavior and illegal contracting, and much of the Assembly’s scrutiny has been directed at the Purchasing Department and the administration’s procurement practices.
The Assembly, in response, enacted an emergency measure to rein in the administration’s power to spend without review and has pushed forward with inquiries into the accusations. That measure expired last week, and a new piece of legislation simultaneously took effect, permanently broadening Assembly oversight by lowering the monetary threshold that triggers a requirement for Assembly approval of some contracts. While the new constraints are looser than the emergency measure’s requirements, the Assembly will now see many more contract and expenditure items on its meeting agendas.
In one major procurement process debacle last year, the Bronson administration green-lit $4.9 million in construction on a homeless shelter project without first getting the required Assembly approval. Bronson officials later conceded making an “error.” (Demboski claimed that Bronson and his top adviser, Larry Baker, intentionally pushed the project forward in violation of city code.)
Given that history, Assembly members will examine closely future contracts for other major city projects and likely raise concerns, Brawley said.
Recently, Alger has been called on several times during meetings to answer Assembly members’ questions about contracting processes, including during some tense deliberations.
“Would (Flynn) be recusing himself from those votes?” Brawley said.
The Assembly is set to vote next week on an update to the city code on conflicts of interest. That won’t change the spirit or intent of the city’s laws, said Petersen, who helped to spearhead the project. Rather, the code change will clarify the disclosure process and the specific questions that must be addressed to determine whether a member’s personal interest is significant, he said.
It’s a needed change that the Assembly has long recognized, Petersen said. Eagle River Assembly member Kevin Cross said he also supports the update.
“The old questions were confusing,” Cross said. “We have like four attorneys on there, and everybody would look at each other like, ‘Do you have any idea what this means?’” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.