After a monthslong inquiry into a challenge to the city’s 2023 election and the involvement of a now-resigned city director, Anchorage Assembly leaders are proposing legislation they say could better protect elections from interference.
The first measure — in what will likely be a series of proposed changes — would codify misdemeanor offenses for public records tampering and for city workers who intentionally engage in political activity on the job or use municipal resources for political or partisan aims.
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant and Vice Chair Meg Zaletel last week introduced the measure, which is slated for consideration by the full Assembly at its Dec. 5 meeting.
Assembly leaders last week also put forward a final report on their inquiry into the election challenge, which the Assembly unanimously adopted.
The Assembly report proffers four findings and recommendations for legislative action, including finding that the “public may be inadequately protected from the possibility of municipal resources being used to interfere with an election.”
The proposal to add misdemeanor offenses is a result of that finding, Constant said.
“We reviewed everything. It became really clear that there is an area that we need to at least consider adding protections for elections from this kind of abuse. Because there was clearly an abuse of process, in my opinion. The report finds that,” Constant said.
Former Information Technology director Marc Dahl resigned in September amid allegations that he tried to interfere with the results of April’s municipal election.
The city ombudsman in May began investigating an incident in which a former chief of staff and longtime ally to Mayor Dave Bronson challenged the election, quoting verbatim an internal policy that didn’t exist until the day she filed the appeal.
Dahl had added the policy to a page on the city’s internal network on April 11 — just two hours before three election observers, including former Bronson chief of staff Sami Graham, filed an appeal. Graham had resigned from the position in 2022 and was not working for the city at the time.
Public records later revealed that Dahl directed IT department staff to publish the unapproved security policy and that, shortly after, he emailed the improper policy to Graham. Graham and two other election observers used it as a basis for their appeal, which questioned the validity of the election results. Dahl violated city rules by adding the unvetted security policy.
Ombudsman Darrel Hess, in a report released in August, said that the timing of events and evidence indicates that Dahl had staff revise and post the policy to provide support for an election challenge.
Hess recommended that the mayor fire Dahl and concluded that he “reasonably believes that there may have been a violation of state election statutes,” and referred the investigation to the state Office of Special Prosecutions.
Soon after Hess’ report, Assembly leaders issued subpoenas to the election observers and questioned them in public meetings. Graham and the other observers denied allegations that they had coordinated with Dahl in an attempt to subvert the election. They said they filed the complaint in good faith, believing that election staff had violated the security policy Dahl sent to Graham, and said they did not know Dahl had just added the unvetted policy.
Dahl refused an Assembly subpoena. Dahl’s attorney has said that Dahl “vehemently denies the Ombudsman’s allegations of civil and/or criminal misconduct.”
Because Dahl did not testify, the ombudsman’s conclusion “remains uncontroverted and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the ombudsman’s conclusion is persuasive,” the Assembly’s report said.
“There is no proof that has been presented that provides any alternative narrative than we had an executive of an administration attempt to change the outcome of an election by uploading a policy that wasn’t real, didn’t go through the process and was intended to create the perception of a violation of the practice of the election,” Constant said.
Using city resources for partisan electoral purposes is already prohibited in Anchorage’s code of ethics, but it doesn’t specify penalties and “may be inadequate,” the Assembly’s report found.
If the proposed measure is approved, anyone employed by the municipality, including contractors, could be charged with a misdemeanor if they use city resources for partisan purposes or for engaging in political activity while at the workplace or while performing work duties.
And it would make tampering with public records a misdemeanor offense when done “with the intent to impair, mislead, or unduly influence a public official or decision-making body.”
That law would specifically prohibit the destruction, damage, suppression, concealing or removal of public records; the creation or distribution of records without proper authority; and the falsification of existing records, or creation of fraudulent records.
Constant said he’s concerned that the proposed laws, if passed, could have unintended consequences, or be “weaponized” against city officials and staff by bad actors within a mayoral administration.
“It is the question of, does the medicine create more of a problem? And we’ll discuss that with the members,” he said.
Further measures and administrative actions to address the other findings and recommendations in the report will likely be introduced in the coming weeks, Constant said.
According to a memorandum accompanying the report, those changes may include: revisions to election complaint forms that leave ambiguity about whether a complainant is seeking to overturn an election; clarifying in code the scope of the Assembly’s subpoena powers, which it may exercise for “any valid legislative purpose”; and clarifying procedures around the Election Commission’s review of concerns or complaints.
Bronson “fully supports safeguarding our election process and is committed to working with the Assembly on code changes that may be necessary to do that,” said Veronica Hoxie, spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
However, “the mayor has expressed concerns in the past about the Assembly’s use of subpoenas to unjustifiably force testimony and the production of documentation to support investigations as it could deter volunteers to work the polling booths,” she said.