On March 22, nine members of the Anchorage Assembly took appropriate action preventing Mayor Dave Bronson from “settling” the issue of his illegal authorization for Hickel Contracting to do work on Bronson’s favored Tudor and Elmore homeless shelter beyond that allowed by contract and municipal law.
Bronson’s “settlement” was to simply pay Hickel Contracting $2.5 million for work it performed without a valid contract. Bronson is eager to “settle” the matter because he may well be on the hook for the money himself, since he acted illegally in authorizing the work. He’d prefer to use taxpayer money to prevent Hickel Contracting from suing the appropriate party -- Bronson -- to recoup its costs for performing the work.
Hickel has no real case against the Municipality. His case is against a mayor who broke the law and knowingly entered into an illegal contract amendment. It’s true that Hickel’s contract was with the Municipality and that the mayor pushed for and authorized a contract amendment prompting Hickel to perform work. The problem for Bronson and Hickel, and what protects taxpayers, is that Bronson very clearly broke the law in pushing a contract amendment beyond what was authorized by the Assembly. Hickel Contracting should probably have known that the contract was illegal but doubtless had Bronson’s assurances that he’d make sure Hickel was paid for the work regardless. But it is Bronson individually, not taxpayers, who should be responsible for any costs Hickel incurred.
Government officials are generally protected from litigation for acts they take in good faith to carry out their responsibilities. An exception is when those officials knowingly break the law.
In state government, the Department of Law would normally independently determine whether the state would defend a state employee for actions taken in the course of performing his or her duties. If the employee knowingly acted outside the law, the state could decline to represent/defend the employee. Unfortunately, as we have seen with illegal acts by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock that violated Alaska’s constitution, a subservient attorney general appointed by the governor can choose to defend even illegal acts and settle matters with taxpayer funds that should be the responsibility of the individual who broke the law.
Mayor Bronson, taking his cue from Dunleavy, would like taxpayers to protect him from the consequences of his illegal actions. He continues to insinuate that the municipal law department tells him that the municipality is responsible to “settle” Bronson’s self-created problem by paying taxpayer funds to Hickel Contracting. I’m guessing that none of the lawyers cycling through the municipal Department of Law have told Bronson he is free from personal liability. But, they likely have told him he would be off the hook if the matter were “settled” with a payment of taxpayer money. And, of course, since municipal attorneys are appointed by the mayor, none would have refused to defend him (except maybe for those who bailed on Bronson for work less compromising of their ethics.)
Assembly member Kevin Cross is quoted by the ADN saying that responsible action by an overwhelming majority of Assembly members to prevent Bronson from “settling” the matter with taxpayer funds “… just kinda feels like it’s more, ‘How do we stick it to the mayor?’”
The truth is that Mayor Bronson kinda stuck it to himself. It’s just that he and his syncophants like Mr. Cross want taxpayers to bail him out of a problem he purposely created. Cross apparently does not believe in individual responsibility and instead wants to put taxpayers on the hook for Bronson’s misdeeds. Where’s that sense of fiscal responsibility “conservatives” like Cross (and Bronson) espouse when they are running for office?
Russ Webb is a former deputy commissioner of Health and Social Services and a resident of Anchorage.
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